Urban Wire ICE Says Immigrant Detention is “Non-Punitive.” The Evidence Tells a Different Story.
Rudy Perez, John M. Eason
Display Date

Immigrant Detention Center is shown on August 20, 2023 in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

In 2023, a group of immigrants detained under terrible conditions at New Mexico’s Torrance County Detention Facility (TDCF) filed a lawsuit against Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE). The lawsuit claimed that ICE approved a false inspection report in 2022, which allowed ICE to continue contracting with TDCF— despite evidence showing the facility was breaking federal standards for humane treatment of immigrants in detention. Alleged violations included a delay in medical care, being served spoiled food, and untreated infections, offering a rare glimpse into ICE’s punitive capacity or ability to inflict harm on immigrant detainees, who are mostly from Latin American countries.

Data on detention center operations and outcomes are difficult to obtain, often requiring lawsuits and extensive Freedom of Information Act requests. But research reveals evidence of traumatic experiences and conditions leading detainees to suffer higher rates of sexual assault, suicide, and death.

ICE’s website says that “detention is non-punitive,” but the available evidence indicates that’s not true. Significant policy changes are necessary to mitigate conditions for immigrants detained in ICE facilities—who are disproportionately Latine— to make sure they are treated more humanely.

Recent conditions in ICE facilities

Many in the public are familiar with the Draconian measures the Trump administration undertook when ICE executed its “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy allowing ICE officials to separate children from their parents at the border. Children as young as 5 and under were separated from their parents for several years. The policy disproportionately affected Latine immigrants and resulted in harmful and sometimes deadly outcomes for detainees, many of whom are detained primarily for civil matters.

Recent research has attempted to measure ICE’s punitive capacity by collecting information on violent actions, such as rates of assault, forced moves, hunger strikes, riots, use of chemical agents and restraints and SWAT teams’ response. One of my (John’s) studies showed that for every 1,000 people held in an immigrant detention center, there were 126 assaults, 36 forced moves, and six disturbances annually. Chemical agents were used eight times, SWAT teams were used nine times, and restraints used 33 times per year on average. These findings suggest a systemic failure in ICE’s ability to provide safe conditions for immigrant detainees.

Policy interventions are necessary to mitigate conditions in ICE facilities

The following policy interventions could help improve outcomes for detained immigrants.

  1. Tracking facilities' punitive capacity

    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General should conduct annual audits of ICE detention facilities to measure behaviors such as assaults, forced moves, and the use of chemical agents. To truly reflect the conditions inside, these audits must be conducted randomly. Audits would not only hold facilities accountable, but also supply the data to support a push for an environment that respects the dignity of all people.

  2. Implementing probationary periods for facilities with high punitive capacity

    Discovering a high punitive capacity in any facility should trigger immediate action. Placing these facilities under a probationary status for a minimum of two years would serve as a critical step toward improving conditions. During this period, if a facility fails to significantly reduce or eliminate its punitive practices, terminating the ICE contract should be on the table. This decisive step would send a clear message to ICE leadership that prioritizing humane treatment is not optional.

  3. Halting the expansion and reducing the number of detention facilities

    The current trajectory of expanding detention facilities is alarming. To prevent exacerbating the already dire situation, we propose a halt to the opening of any new facilities and consider closing facilities with repeated human rights violations. The evidence is clear: expansion of immigrant detention centers leads to more harm, with increased rates of death, sexual assaults, and suicides—especially among immigrant communities. By stopping the growth of these facilities, DHS can prevent further suffering.

Immigrants who are detained have the right to humane conditions. These policy interventions can help disrupt the cycle of harm and improve outcomes for Latine people and families. Changes are imperative to ensuring ICE detention is non-punitive as the agency states.

Thanks to Paola Echave, who contributed to this blog post. 


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Crime and justice analytics Immigrant communities and racial equity Mass incarceration Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
Related content