The Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security released a report last week that found the Howard County Detention Center had multiple violations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention standards.
The report, released Oct. 28, found the detention center in Jessup did not meet Department of Homeland Security’s standards in multiple categories after the Office of Inspector General completed an unannounced inspection in December. The detention center was found to excessively strip-search ICE detainees held at the center and failed to provide the detainees with two hot meals a day, despite requirements to do so, according to the report.
“We determined [the Howard County Detention Center] violated detention standards by excessively strip-searching low-custody detainees leaving their housing unit to attend activities within the facility,” the report says. “Although [the Howard County Detention Center] received a waiver from ICE related to strip searches, [the detention center’s] current practice of strip-searching low-custody detainees without documented reasonable suspicion exceeds the parameters of the waiver and contradicts facility policy.”
In an interview Friday, Howard County Department of Corrections Director Jack Kavanagh said the report has been taken out of context and does not reflect the current status of the detention center.
“People have grabbed that report — it’s a public record, [and] our own County Council referenced it this past Monday — and used some extreme descriptions of what was going on here,” Kavanagh said.
Howard County’s contract with ICE, which has existed since 1995, allows immigration detainees to be held in the Howard County Detention Center. The center does not hold ICE detainees who are women or children.
In September, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball implemented a policy clarification that the Jessup detention center would only accept immigration detainees from ICE who are convicted of a “crime of violence,” such as murder, rape or first-degree assault. Previously, the county’s policy was to detain undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes, validated gang members, deported felons who have illegally made their way back to the United States and people charged with jailable offenses.
The Department of Homeland Security made its visit Dec. 17 when the detention center had 61 ICE detainees in custody. As of Friday, the detention center has 16 detainees. Kavanagh said the lower number of detainees can be attributed to the county’s policy clarification and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ball did not respond to a request for comment.
During the visit, Office of Inspector General staff toured the facilities including detainee housing units, food service areas, the medical unit, and recreation and religious areas. The Department of Homeland Security said it interviewed ICE personnel, detention center officials and 10 detainees as part of the report.
The most thoroughly detailed portions of the 26-page report focused on the strip-search policy at the detention center and how the implementation of that policy differed from ICE policy. The Howard County Detention Center is one of more than 200 facilities nationwide that house ICE detainees and one of three facilities in the state that do so. The other two in Maryland are in Frederick and Worcester counties.
Officials at the Howard detention center said they strip-searched low-custody detainees to look for contraband anytime they left their housing unit, according to the report. Low-custody detainees are those with minor criminal histories and nonviolent felony charges, as opposed to high-custody detainees with significant criminal histories, gang affiliations or a history of violence, according to the report; high-custody detainees are always to be escorted around the facility by staff. When low-custody detainees went to the on-site medical unit, attended religious services, used outdoor recreation, used the library or received contact and noncontact visits, they were strip-searched.
However, ICE’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards operation manual says strip searches can be conducted only when a supervisor approves the strip search based on “documented reasonable suspicion that contraband may be concealed on the detainee.”
The Department of Homeland Security report said, despite that nationwide policy, ICE detainees at the Howard County Detention Center were routinely strip-searched without “documented reasonable suspicion and supervisory approval.”
From August to December 2019, the center strip-search log stated the staff conducted 35 strip searches of low-custody detainees. One detainee was found to have been strip-searched 13 times.
Kavanagh said now that Ball’s policy clarification is in place there are no low-custody detainees in the center to strip search. If the policy shifts again, however, and low-custody ICE detainees return to the center, Kavanagh said, they would continue to strip search.
Though the strip-search logs contain space for staff to identify the reason for the strip search, the report found the facility did not consistently include the purpose in the written records.
Kavanagh said the incomplete records are due to a change in jail management systems in late 2018 and early 2019. The center used paper forms to document strip searches before the system change, and it now has switched to electronic forms; according to Kavanagh, that’s what caused the inconsistencies.
“[We] walk around with handheld devices and it took awhile to get employees trained and skilled on how to use those devices,” he said.
Detention center officials told the Office of Inspector General that concern about contraband was the reasoning behind the strip searches because low-custody detainees are housed with county inmates who are allowed to leave the facility for work release. However, according to the report, the Howard center did not report any incidents of low-custody detainees caught with contraband.
“The facility did not provide documentation showing reasonable suspicion that detainees were in possession of contraband or why leaving the housing unit created an increased risk of detainees transporting contraband to other parts of the facility,” the report says. “Because low-custody detainees have minimal to no contact with high-custody detainees or high-level inmates, even when outside the east wing [where low-custody detainees are housed], it was unclear why the facility believed detainees would spread contraband to other parts of the facility.”
Kavanagh said the lack of incidents reported shows the system in place works to prevent contraband from entering the detention center. According to Kavanagh, the Howard County Detention Center saw an unusual number of positive drug tests in the maximum-security cellblocks in 2017 and 2018, and so the strip searches were put in place to mediate that.
“When the auditor said we can’t provide recent proof of the contraband being passed it’s because there was none. It was because we were doing the job we were supposed to do,” Kavanagh said. “Obviously if we’re doing the job right, we’re not going to have incidents of it.”
The report also said the detention center did not properly document the handling of detainee medical grievances or logs for detainees held in segregation. The Howard County Detention Center did not consistently record meals and medical visits for detainees in segregation, the Office of Inspector General said, and so it was unable to verify if detainees received three meals a day while isolated.
The Office of Inspector General reviewed housing records for five of the 13 detainees placed in segregation from June to December 2019 and found incomplete documentation. The report said the office could not verify whether the center provided three meals a day or a daily medical visit to those detainees.
The report also found that, for more than eight months, ICE detainees were given one hot meal and two cold meals a day despite national ICE policy requiring two hot meals of the three per day. Inspectors found this violation attributable to ongoing kitchen renovations that were expected to take 30 to 45 days and ultimately took more than eight months.
“Of the 61 ICE detainees at [the Howard County Detention Center] during our visit, 36 detainees had received only one hot meal per day for more than 30 days, with [two] of those detainees receiving only one hot meal per day for more than [five] months,” the report says.
Howard County Detention Center officials said detainees began receiving two hot meals a day Feb. 20.
The findings come after months of discussion and protests from the community on Howard County’s relationship with ICE.
In October, County Council Vice Chair Liz Walsh introduced legislation to completely end the county’s contract with ICE. Though the bill passed in a 3-2 vote, Ball vetoed it. At a virtual County Council meeting Monday night, an override of Ball’s veto failed.
During her remarks at Monday’s meeting, Walsh said that not only was ICE violating human rights but so was Howard County’s Department of Corrections.
“We do this; we are the monster in this story. My heart breaks for the utter lack of leadership on this issue,” Walsh said.
County Council member David Yungmann, who voted against Walsh’s legislation and against overriding the veto, said facilities like the Howard County Detention Center always have inspections and always have deficiencies. He called the deficiencies “not noteworthy at all.”
“It is not out of the ordinary course of operation that a deficiency would exist,” Yungmann said at the meeting.
County Council member Opel Jones said that since the report was using data from nearly a year ago, it was no longer an accurate representation of the detention center.
Among the recommendations the report included to amend the violations, the Office of Inspector General suggested the Howard County Detention Center physically separate low-custody detainees from inmate populations.
“By housing ICE detainees with county inmates, [the Howard County Detention Center] inappropriately applied policies and practices intended for those in criminal custody to detainees meant to be held in civil custody while their immigration court proceedings are pending,” the report says.
Kavanagh said the open-concept structure of the jail is not conducive to the recommendation unless the jail is completely redone.
The Office of Inspector General also recommended the facility establish a routine oversight process of the detention center to address the meals per day, segregation and medical grievance log issues.
Hiring an on-site federal detention service manager to conduct daily compliance reviews at the Howard County Detention Center was also recommended in the report. Kavanagh said in the past 2½ years the detention center has had a part-time detention service manager. When the Office of Inspector General toured the center, Kavanagh said, there was a detention service manager working.
“If ICE wants to hire [a detention service manager] and bring them here full time, we will welcome them with open arms,” Kavanagh said.