What Is A Detention Center?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

You’ll likely have heard the term ‘detention center’ crop up in the news over the last few years, and think you have a general idea of them. But, what actually is a detention center, and who is kept there? This article will explain. 

The Definition Of A Detention Center? 

What qualifies as a detention center is rather broad – as it is just any location that is used to detain people. Specifically, this can be:

  • A jail or prison facility, in which inmates are forcibly confined against their will, and denied certain freedoms under the authority of the state, in order to punish them after being convicted of crimes. 
  • A structure for immigration detention 
  • An internment camp 
  • A youth detention center, which is a secure jail/prison for individuals under the age of majority. 

You will be familiar with certain concepts on that list, such as imprisoning criminals, or juvenile detention, but you might be a little foggier on others, like what immigration detention or an internment camp is. 

What Is Immigration Detention? 

Immigration detention is the law enforcement policy of holding individuals that are suspected of violating the terms of their visa, entering the country illegally, or unauthorized arrival, in addition to those that are subject to deportation and removal, until a decision has been made about their case by immigration authorities.

Often, for these individuals to be released from immigration detention centers, they have to have a decision made by the appropriate governing body about whether to grant them a visa, and then release them into the community, or whether they should be repatriated into the country that they have come from. 

People in detention centers may also be undergoing mandatory detention, which is the practice of compulsory detaining someone who is seeking political asylum, or who are considered to be undocumented immigrants who have entered a country unauthorized.

Some countries do have a maximum period for individuals to be in mandatory detention, before they have to be released, whereas other countries permit indefinite detention. 

Detention Centers In The United States 

The modern detention centers (not just jails) in the US began to develop in the early 1980s, as the US began detaining Haitians and Cubans at Guantánamo Bay, as well as other groups, such as Chinese individuals, who were often detained in centers on the mainland.

The detention practice was made mandatory through legislation that was passed under Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing, however, this legislature has come under fire from organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and the American Civil Liberties Union, all of whom have released major studies on detention centers.

This piece of legislation both made detention mandatory, and allowed the Attorney General to extend detention.

Now, the US government holds tens of thousands of immigrants in detention centers that are under the control of Customs and Border Protection (CBP; principally known as the Border Patrol) and ICE.

Detention centers for unauthorized immigrants are managed by three different but interconnected agencies – Customs and Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

According to data recorded in 2018, 42,188 non-citizens (including children) were held in detention centers across the country on any given day. In 2010, there were over 200 detention centers, jails, and prisons across the nation. The US has a number of facilities, most notably the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, which opened in 2006, which are used to specifically house non-criminal families. 

Detention centers have been on the news a lot in the last few years, and have become a controversial buzzword topic for many, particularly when talking about US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Between 2003 and 2008, 104 individuals died whilst in being detained by ICE, or shortly afterwards, and it has been determined that as many as 30 of those deaths were triggered by medical neglect from ICE officials.

An example of one of these tragic deaths was investigated by the New York Times.  34-year-old New Yorker Hiu Lui Ng died whilst in the custody of ICE.

The NYT condemned the tragedy, and urged officials to change the system, but ICE stated that the number of deaths per capita in their detention facilities was far lower than in other jail and prison populations, and emphasized that they provide the ‘best possible healthcare’ at a time when the whole nation is experiencing ‘severe shortages of qualified health professionals’. 

What Is The Process In Detention Centers

The CBP directly detains unauthorized immigrants when they arrive at the US’s points of entry. Their facilities have been designed for brief detention stays, with immigrants usually being passed over into the custody of ICE, or into the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Generally, this process should not take over 72 hours, but as of mid-2029, the average length of stay for detainees was one week. In 2019, there was a surge of detainees in CBP custody, with 14,000 to 18,000 people held each night in May and June. On a press call, CBP commissioner McAleenan said, ‘A high number for us is 4,000. A crisis level is 6,000. 13,000 is unprecedented.’

Criticisms Of The US Detention Center System

After reading all that, you are probably thinking the same of this as many others – that the ICE detention center system is flawed, and is harming those who are incarcerated there. We’re going to investigate a few of the claims leveled against detention centers. 

Like many jails in the US, a lot of detention centers that house immigrants are operated by private companies that have contracts with ICE. This has led to a few criticisms, as abuse of human rights can occur without the government there to monitor, as they are not directly involved.

The privatization model is based on profit maximization for these private companies, and therefore cost reduction for the running of these facilities. In essence, having more detainees means that there will be a bigger check, more money for the company at the end of the day, so they have no motivation to release their detainees, as they are paid per inmate per day. 

Many of the standards set out by ICE aren’t often carried out in practice,  for example, standards state that detainees should be provided with access to law libraries, given a handbook on immigration detention, and a presentation on their legal rights – these practices are not often carried out. 

The ACLU has criticized the conditions in ICE facilities for a few different reasons – they do not follow PBND (performance-based national detention) standards, for incarcerating immigrants in ‘short term’ facilities that don’t meet basic needs, like beds, water, and hygiene necessities, like toothbrushes. 

Final Thoughts

Detention centers are used across the USA (and the world), for unauthorized border arrivals, immigrants and asylum seekers. Many in the US feel as though mandatory immigration detention is a necessary system – but the current system is flawed and overtaxed, with too many immigrants coming in to be dealt with in the current iteration of the agencies to handle.

Unauthorized or not, people deserve to have their basic rights upheld, like access to water, beds, and legal aid. Detaining individuals is needed – but the system needs to change to ensure everyone’s safety.