Illinois detention center among worst in U.S.

By Hallie Zolkower-Kutz

The Tri-County Detention Center in Ullin, Ill., a holding facility for undocumented immigrants while their right to legal residency is being determined by authorities, was named one of the 10 worst detention centers in the country Nov. 15 by the Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of community leaders and advocates.

The report is part of Detention Watch Network’s “Expose and Close” campaign, which aims to reveal information about immigration facilities nationwide. According to the report, complaints against the Tri-County Detention Center include overcrowding, inadequate medical care, denial of access to legal representation and unpunished instances of rape.

“What we found was a pattern of abuse and mistreatment across the facilities,” said Andrea Black, executive director of the network. “I don’t think these are the only facilities that have problems, but they definitely exemplify the egregious problems that we see throughout the system.”

The most pressing and pervasive issues

issues surrounding the detention center are its isolation practices and lack of means of communication, said Tara Tidwell Cullen, associate director of communications at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“The entire system is structurally dysfunctional, and the way it’s built denies people access to counsel,” Cullen said. “One of our major concerns is that [the Tri-County Detention Center] is so far away from legal aid and advocates who are able to help people. If you are detained six hours from the nearest affordable legal aid, it’s almost impossible to find an attorney.”

Access to legal counsel is a crucial factor in determining whether an undocumented immigrant will be granted citizenship, and the detention center’s policies hinder detainees from communicating with outsiders, Cullen said.

“One of the most consistent concerns that we have is that the phone system doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s a persistent problem and is really reflected in our limited access to the facility.”

The report draws most of its conclusions based on claims made by detainees, but it is unclear whether complaints were made before 2009 reforms to improve overall performance, effectiveness and efficiency took effect, according to the website of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which oversees the detention center.

ICE could not be reached for comment as of press time.

The Detention Watch Network and the National Immigrant Justice Center are calling for the federal government to reform its methods of handling immigration and deportation in detention centers throughout the U.S.

“Our immigration enforcement system should not rely so heavily on detention,” Cullen said. “There are several alternative programs that have been piloted that have shown to be both effective and much less expensive.”

These programs include the use of ankle monitors and community detention, which would allow people to be held an area such as residential housing, and require them to check in with ICE agents on a regular basis.

“The ideal is to follow the Obama administration’s priorities of not detaining or deporting people who have not committed serious crimes,” said the Rev. Sara Wohlleb, congregational coordinator of the Chicago New Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that works closely with immigrants and their families. “We believe our priorities should be alternatives to detention.”

Black explained that immigrants held in these centers often have no criminal history.

“[Immigrant detention is] a process like traffic court or housing court, and yet they’re being held in high security,” she said. “The vast majority pose absolutely no threat to the community. There’s no reason we should lock them up.”

Wohlleb said she is most concerned with the ethical treatment of detainees inside the detention center.

“We need to have a realistic system that respects the human rights of immigrants,” she said. “All immigrants should be treated with respect.”