Ostrich In-depth: Overepresented and undervalued, immigrants in prison

30 Sep

Dear readers – We are excited to share with you the second installment of the Ostrich Egg, the guest contributor section of The Curious Ostrich. Despite regular coverage of immigration laws and issues, rarely does the media discuss how immigration, immigration-related policies or xenophobia affect the health of immigrants and our nation. Keep your head up on these important issues through The Ostrich Egg. 

Barbed Wire with Prison in the background

Photo by Dana Gonzales

By Amanda Gatewood

Latinos are targeted by law enforcement and ICE officers, and the effects of this targeting write themselves large in the health experiences of Latinos generally and Latino immigrants especially.  While immigrants from all racial and ethnic backgrounds face difficulties in the U.S. due to discrimination, Latino immigrants are today are at the forefront of U.S. immigration battles.

Many Americans believe that simply living in a country in which one was not born without legal permissions is a crime, and the Obama administration appears to agree.  Under President Obama, the number of deportations of Latino immigrants has risen by 10% when compared to the number of deportations under President Bush.  There are numerous reports of immigrants being harassed by police, even in their own homes, and the impact of surveillance and intimidation has led to a culture of fear that makes many undocumented immigrants unable to call the police, even when they are the victims of serious crimes.   The disproportionate number of incarcerated Latinos subjects them and their families to the indignities of prisons: substandard health care, police violence, constant surveillance, disruption of their relationships with their families and communities.

CHART of Felony Convictions of Latinos in 2007Almost half of immigrants (48%), most of whom are Latino, swept up by law enforcement have not committed any criminal offenses.  However, largely because simply living and accepting employment in the U.S are against civil law and “illegal reentry” is a felony offense, Latinos now comprise over half of all prisoners sentenced for felonies.  This increase in immigration-related felonies has occurred despite the fact that most Latinos are not in fact immigrants and are native citizens who are not able to be subjected to laws regarding immigration.

Latinos that are immigrants are discriminated against at all stages of the legal system, from disproportionate surveillance to harsh sentencing.  Angela Arboleda of the Criminal Justice Policy with the National Council of La Raza (in an interview that is essential reading) says that Latinos are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops and arrest and to be questioned about their immigrations statuses, especially at work and in predominately Latino neighborhoods, and Latinos of all immigration statuses are less likely to be released pre-trial than both black or white people arrested for similar offenses.

Partially, increased incarceration is due to increased surveillance of communities and changing standards in which the U.S. police coordinate with ICE at historically unprecedented levels.  Furthermore, the U.S. is now filing charges against immigrants before deporting them, whereas in the past they were simply sent back to their countries of origin.  In fact,

“[t]oday illegal reentry, that is, the crime of entering the country after having already been barred, is the number one lead charge that federal prosecutors bring, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University… [B]etween 2002 and 2008, prosecutions for first-time illegal entry in district courts that line the border increased 330 percent, due in large part to Operation Streamline, a Bush-era program that mandated that anyone caught crossing the border illegally be prosecuted in federal court, and incarcerated.”  (Colorlines)

Once immigrants have been targeted and arrested, what happens?

There are several types of prisons that immigrants may be sent to.  A detention center is a prison complex where immigrants are held while their deportation cases amble through the U.S. court system.  There are dozens of detention centers all around the U.S., not including the 186 unlisted and unmarked detention facilities run by ICE.  Sometimes families are housed in detention centers together, although sometimes immigrants are held separately from their families.  Immigrants in these facilities have not committed any crimes, or have already served a court-mandated sentence for their crimes.  State and federal prisons may also house immigrants who have been found guilty of committing a misdemeanor or a felony.  Felonies are serious crimes that require that a prisoner serve at least 1 year in jail.  Felonies make it impossible for an immigrant to apply to emigrate to the U.S.  Latinos make up only 13% of the U.S. population, and most Latinos are natural-born U.S. citizens, yet they account for 40% of people convicted of felonies.

Subject to violence in jails

Immigrants can be held in these facilities for extremely long periods of time, with the average detention period of 11 months, although it is not unheard of to have an immigrant detained for more than 5 years.  There have been 111 reports of deaths of immigrants while in these detention centers in only 8 years, many of which are due to medical neglect of treatable conditions.  Often, to escape from these prisons, immigrants sign away their rights to a hearing and inadvertently make it impossible for them to seek re-entry to the U.S.

Inadequate access to medical care

Medical care in both detention facilities and state and federal prisons is substandard, and prisoners’ access to medical treatment is curtailed.  This number does not take into account mental health conditions which may be exacerbated by the stresses and traumas of incarceration.  20% of prisoners in state prisons and 14% of prisoners in federal prisons had not seen a doctor or nurse since their incarceration.

Latino immigrants and U.S. citizens who are Latino are becoming highly overrepresented in the general prison population, where health facilities and care are substandard.  This results in deteriorating health among incarcerated Latino immigrants and Latino U.S. citizens.  According to a report published in the American Journal of Public Health by Cambridge Medical Alliance and Harvard Medical School,

“Compared to other Americans of the same age, the 1.2 million state prison inmates were 31 percent more likely to have asthma, 55 percent more likely to have diabetes, and 90 percent more likely to have suffered a heart attack.  Access to care was worst in local jails and best in federal prisons. One-quarter of jail inmates who had suffered severe injuries had received no medical attention, versus 12 percent in state prisons and 8 percent in federal prisons.  Inmates with medical problems like diabetes, which requires drug treatment, often had their vital medications stopped after their incarceration, including one-quarter of chronically ill state prisoners and 36.5 percent of inmates in local jails.”

Dismal care, intensifying mental health issues, and extreme stress are merely the tangible health effects of incarceration on immigrants.  Less easily quantified are the emotional, social, and economic costs paid by the family and friends of the prisoner and by society as a whole, which has to shoulder the economic costs of incarceration and legal costs to criminalize people whose ‘crimes’ are simply of accepting employment and making a life for themselves.  Children are also subject to detention, as well as pregnant women, many of whom are removed from their families during detention.

The increasingly punative immigration system and its attendant racism work in tandem to put immigrants, and especially Latino immigrants, at high risk for negative health outcomes.  Immigrants are racially targeted by law enforcement, sentenced to crimes that other residents of the U.S. are not subject to, detained indefinitely while deportation hearings run, and denied medical care while incarcerated.  Working to end racism against Latinos and immigrants is the larger goal, but some more immediate problems need attention, too.

Achieving amnesty for prisoners is not easy, but many groups are working to free immigrants from persecution at the hands of the U.S. legal system.  Many groups are writing to officials on behalf of inmates. The ACLU is working on legislation that would ensure that all detainees receive medical care.  Find a group in your town that is working to create more humane immigration procedures and get involved with them!  If there is an immigrant detention center near you, organize a protest or help to organize your community to oppose the existence of such a prison.  Another way to lift the status of immigrants is to get involved in community conversations about realistic immigration policies and pathways to citizenship, the DREAM Act, and immigrants’ rights.  If there’s one of the dozens of CopWatch groups in your town, you might get involved in patrolling and documenting police abuses of power.

Get creative!  Get involved!

Amanda Gatewood is an epidemiologist for the Kentucky Department for Public Health and researches birth defects and metabolic disorders throughout Kentucky and Appalachia. She is also a doula for low-income women. Amanda is especially interested in analysis and prevention of interpersonal, institutional, and state-sponsored violence.


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