The detention complex in Eloy is a small city unto itself, a locked-down desert fortress with Phoenix shimmering to the northwest, and low-slung mountains rising to the east.
Approximately 1,500 foreign detainees are held there, awaiting deportation for immigration violations that range from petty crimes to overstayed visas. Another 1,200 are housed in the massive prison complex at Florence. The Eloy Detention Center is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, a private company under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Corrections Corporation also runs one of the Florence prisons.
Populations at these detention centers and others nationwide have exploded since Sept. 11, from less than 9,000 in 1996 to more than to 300,000 in recent years. With that growth has come a rising chorus of concern over accountability and transparency. Critics charge that relatives are often unable to locate their loved ones within the sprawling system, as detainees are shuffled from jail to jail. Even more disconcerting are the deaths within these centers, and apparent government attempts to keep them hidden.
It took a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union to pry much of this information from the DHS.
The highest number of those deaths—nine in total—occurred at the Eloy Detention Center, and the leading cause, according to the ACLU, was inadequate or delayed medical care.
ICE officials seemingly spent more time trying to cover up these cases than preventing more from occurring. Time after time, public affairs officers provided misleading data and attempted to divert reporters.
"There's a deep problem with a lack of transparency and accountability about detention conditions generally, and specifically with regards to death in immigration detention," says David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C.
"We made this (Freedom of Information Act) request in 2007.We've been litigating the case since 2008, and the government has really fought tooth and nail to prevent us from obtaining a number of these documents. This is critical information about what went wrong—what led to deaths in immigration detention."
In August, the DHS revealed that 11 previously undisclosed deaths had occurred in detention facilities since 2004.They added to the total of 104 deaths since 2003.
Behind those numbers, of course, are real people. They include Chinese computer engineer Hiu Lui Ng, who suffered from cancer and spinal injuries. Security cameras recorded security guards laughing at Ng as they dragged him from his cell in a Rhode Island facility. He died a week later. Another prisoner, this time in New Jersey, suffered a skull fracture that went untreated for 13 hours. The man, a tailor from Guinea, was dying even as officials discussed quickly deporting him so his death wouldn't make headlines. In yet another case, jail workers lied on a medication log to make it seem that a Salvordan man with a broken leg had been given medication for his extreme pain, when actually he had not. The man ultimately killed himself.
At Eloy, a diabetic, 62-year-old barber died of a heart ailment as he awaited deportation to his native Ghana. He had lived legally in the United States for 33 years, and was being deported because of shoplifting and misdemeanor battery convictions in 1979.
"ICE just somehow lost track of these deaths," says Shapiro. "But (Homeland Security) seemed less concerned with what went wrong—and what could be done to prevent tragedies like that from happening in the future—than they were with looking at it from a public-relations standpoint, at how they could minimize the fallout."
In the case of the skull-fracture victim, "there was even talk of trying to prevent the family from coming to the U.S. for the funeral, because they were worried that the press would cover it," he says.
In October, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced extensive reforms for the detention system, with changes ranging from separating criminal aliens from mere asylum seekers, to releasing others with electronic ankle bracelets.
The department also plans to bring all contracts with private prisons—now totaling more than 300—under centralized supervision at ICE headquarters. And the agency pledges to more than double the number of federal employees providing oversight at large detention facilities.
"These new initiatives will improve accountability and safety in our detention facilities," said Napolitano, "as we continue to engage in smart and effective enforcement of our nation's immigration laws."
Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman in Phoenix, says those changes are just beginning to take root. "While we're looking at reforms nationally, they have not yet been implemented in Arizona. But we anticipate hiring some additional federal employees to provide government oversight of the detention facilities in Arizona."
ICE also plans to assign case managers "to keep tabs on detainees with significant medical problems," he says. Other steps may include ensuring that seriously ill detainees are housed in areas with hospitals. Picard says the agency will also develop an online registry, allowing relatives to trace their family members in detention.
But such reforms may not be enough to satisfy frustrated immigrant-rights activists, who point to continuing abuses. "We get letters from detainees, and the No. 1 complaint is denial of medical attention and abuse," says Kat Rodriguez of the Tucson group Derechos Humanos. "The other really big problem is lack of accountability. For example, many times, we've gotten calls about someone who's in detention, and nobody can find them in the system."
She says Derechos Humanos was contacted by one woman looking for her son. The young man had been deported after illegally crossing into the United States. Then he was caught again and placed in detention in Tucson. Officials told his mother he was being sent to a California jail.
"But when we talked to the jail, they said they had sent him back to (the Tucson) detention center," Rodriguez says. "And that detention center said they'd never received him. The only record they had of him was from when he was originally deported. So nobody could say where he was.
"It's almost like people are being disappeared," she says.