- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More than 280,000 illegal aliens held at 400 detention centers nationwide face a complex, often unreliable telephone system that frequently prevents them from being able to make free calls to complain about their confinement, a Government Accountability Office report says.

GAO investigators said they found “systemic problems” with the pro bono phone system at 16 of 17 detention facilities they reviewed, including failed connections due to technical problems and insufficient internal controls to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up-to-date or otherwise accurate.

At one facility, the report said, the list of consulate numbers was six years old and nearly one-third of the numbers were incorrect.

But Jamie Zuieback, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees the detention centers, yesterday said efforts are under way to improve the system to make it “more user friendly.”

“ICE detainees tripled between 2001 and 2006, but we are committed to providing a safe, secure and humane environment for those in our custody,” said Ms. Zuieback. “We are very pleased with the overall positive findings in the report and have taken numerous steps to improve the phone system.”

The ICE inmate population has gone from 95,000 in fiscal 2001 to 283,000 in 2006.

Illegal aliens held at ICE detention facilities file a variety of complaints regarding their treatment, the vast majority of which are routed through a free telephone complaint hot line. A review by GAO of 750 detainee complaints last year found most centered on medical treatment; case management; mistreatment; detainee protests of detention or deportation; civil rights, human rights or discrimination; property issues; and employee misconduct.

Ms. Zuieback said of the 139,288 pro bono telephone calls GAO listed as incomplete, about 95 percent of them were beyond the agency’s control, including calls in which the detainee hung up, got through to an answering machine, got a busy signal, or ended when a consulate did not accept the call.

“Still 7,000 calls were not completed and that is a great concern to us. We are taking steps to correct that problem” she said, noting that weekly reviews were ordered to ensure serviceability of all the phones and the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility was asked to independently validate inspections.

ICE officials told GAO investigators that they did not know the extent of the phone problems before the review, adding that the agency has since asked for a Homeland Security Office of Inspector General audit of the telephone system.

While critical of the free telephone system, the GAO report said other reported deficiencies varied and “did not appear to show a pattern of noncompliance,” including medical treatment; abuse; detention or deportation protests; civil rights, human rights or discrimination; and employee misconduct.

Those deficiencies were limited to food-service concerns at three facilities, medical care at three facilities, hold-room policies at three facilities and use-of-force policy at four facilities.

ICE conducts annual compliance inspection reviews at detention centers to determine whether the facilities are in compliance with the National Detention Standards. The agency maintains custody of one of the most transient and diverse populations of any detention system in the world. Detainees represent every country and security classification, belong to either gender, can comprise family groups of every age and can have medical conditions of all types.