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‘To remain silent would mean complicity’: Whistleblowers expose harm in ICE detention facilities


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: ‘To remain silent would mean complicity’: Whistleblowers expose harm in ICE detention facilities

  • Scandal-plagued Arizona prosecutor won’t release records, lawsuit alleges

  • New data reveals the racial disparities in Pennsylvania’s money bail industry

  • De Blasio says new jails to replace Rikers will be smaller than originally planned

  • Philadelphia DA calls for new trial and new judge in Meek Mill’s case

  • Massachusetts legislators rethinking life without parole

In the Spotlight

‘To remain silent would mean complicity’: Whistleblowers expose harm in ICE detention facilities

When Drs. Scott Allen and Pamela McPherson were contracted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2014 to inspect ICE family detention facilities, they were not new to jail and prison conditions. According to a CNN.com article published today, Allen had previously been the chief medical officer of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and McPherson had worked in juvenile detention facilities for three decades. But the harm to children in the family detention facilities—that they saw over the course of 10 inspections conducted until September 2017—alarmed them so much that last July, they sent a letter to the chairperson and vice chairperson of the Senate Whistleblowing Caucus. They had decided to speak out against ICE’s practice of detaining children.

“We are writing to you,” they said, “members of Congress with oversight responsibility, because we have a duty to raise our concerns about the ongoing and future threat of harm to children posed by the current and proposed expansion of the family detention program.”

In the letter, the doctors detailed the harm to detained children and explained why they felt compelled to speak. “The ethics of our profession are clear that we have a professional duty not only to intervene to prevent physical and mental harm to children, but to speak out against assaults on their dignity as well,” they wrote. “To remain silent would mean complicity. Not only can we not facilitate the expansion of family detention, we are duty bound to oppose it.”

Allen and McPherson are still DHS-contracted experts. In March, amid concerns that the Trump administration was on track to expand family detention, they sent a follow-up letter, urging congressional committees to “exercise your oversight authority and responsibility to ensure that the health and safety of the children crossing at our southern borders is prioritized over their confinement.”

Thus far, Allen and McPherson’s actions, taken at considerable personal risk, have not yielded changes in policy. But they pledged to continue speaking out. Speaking to CNN, Allen said, “Our goal is to protect children. But if we fail them, we sure as hell want to leave a written record for history that documents who is notified of an impending harm to children—and who did nothing about it.”

Just this week, another whistleblower’s concerns about ICE came to light in reporting by The Intercept and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Ellen Gallagher was a policy adviser with DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in 2014 when she learned that immigrants in ICE detention were being placed in solitary confinement, for up to 22 hours a day, and for over two weeks at a time.

When The Intercept and the journalists’ consortium reviewed more than 8,400 solitary confinement incident reports from 2012 through early 2017, they found that people placed in solitary confinement were often described as having a mental illness, that over 300 people described as potentially suicidal were isolated, and over 200 people who expressed suicidal thoughts while in segregation were moved to forms of observation that closely resembled solitary.

Gallagher told reporters that she believed that ICE’s extensive use of segregation, especially for people with “special vulnerabilities,” violated the agency’s own policies and procedures. Yet when she made her concerns known within DHS, and then to government watchdogs and congressional committees, it led to no action (with the exception of the Senate Judiciary Committee chairperson, Chuck Grassley, who along with then-Senator Al Franken sent a letter to the then-secretary of homeland security citing Gallagher’s concerns and asking for an explanation).

She decided to speak out, she told The Intercept, because “until there are enough people that do that, then this same set of circumstances will not stop, and I think it’ll actually get worse.”

Whistleblowers are not just sharing information about the harms experienced by people in immigration detention. Last month, the New York Times, Splinter, and other publications published selected images from over 2,000 photos that were taken inside Alabama’s St. Clair prison and sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center. News organizations reached individual decisions about which photographs were appropriate to publish. But the chosen images and the publications’ accounts of what the photos as a whole depicted brought nationwide attention to the violence and neglect that people in Alabama prisons endure.

The only public information about the identity of the person who leaked the photos is that they identified themselves as a corrections officer at St. Clair. If this is the case, then this was someone else comfortable with the basic function of a prison, but who still thought what they were seeing at work was so troubling—and the likelihood of change from alerting internal authorities was so low—that it was necessary that the public at large learn about it.

Stories From The Appeal

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery [Flickr/Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

Scandal-Plagued Arizona Prosecutor Won’t Release Records, Lawsuit Alleges. The ACLU of Arizona is suing Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s office over its alleged lack of transparency. [Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg]

New Data Reveals the Racial Disparities in Pennsylvania’s Money Bail Industry. Despite accounting for less than 12 percent of the state’s adult population, roughly 40 percent of all bail bonds were issued in cases involving a Black defendant. [Joshua Vaughn]

Stories From Around the Country

De Blasio says new jails to replace Rikers will be smaller than originally planned: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Wednesday that the four borough-based jails planned to replace Rikers Island will be smaller than originally planned, to reflect the city’s revised estimates of the number of people the city will detain daily in 2026. That estimate is now 4,000, down from 5,000. There are currently about 8,400 people detained at Rikers Island and other city jails. The city’s plan for new jails in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens has faced community opposition in all the neighborhoods slated for the facilities. [David Brand / Queens Eagle] See also In yesterday’s Daily Appeal, Sarah Lustbader looked at how jail beds drive incarceration. “Collectively,” she wrote, “it seems that more space in jails and prisons means more incarceration.”

Philadelphia DA calls for new trial and new judge in Meek Mill’s case: In filings in the Pennsylvania Superior Court yesterday, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office argued for a new trial in rapper Meek Mill’s case and called on Judge Genece Brinkely to recuse herself. According to ABC News, the DA’s office argued that Brinkley created the “appearance of partiality” in Mill’s case and that she “abused her discretion” when she sentenced him to two to four years in prison on probation violations in 2017. The DA’s brief referenced, as one example, Brinkley’s decision to “check up” on Mill at a homeless shelter where he was performing court-ordered community service in 2017. At a later hearing, the judge alleged that when she visited the shelter, Mill was bagging clothes rather than serving food, which she considered a violation. The DA’s office argued that this put her in the role of both witness and decision maker. [Deena Zaru / ABC News]

Massachusetts legislators rethinking life without parole: An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration, currently pending in the Massachusetts legislature (H.3358/S.826), would introduce parole eligibility for anyone after 25 years in prison and is retroactive for everyone serving a life without parole sentence. Dig Boston looks at the history of the life without parole sentence in Massachusetts—one of the first states to adopt the punishment—and the momentum to end it. According to the Sentencing Report, as of May 2017, Massachusetts had the fifth-highest rate of life and virtual life sentences in the country. Currently, life without parole is the automatic sentence for anyone convicted of first-degree murder and can also be imposed under the state’s three-strikes law. Representative Jay Livingstone, the bill’s sponsor in the house, noted that there have been zero commutations by any Massachusetts governor in 20 years. [Jean Trounstine / Dig Boston]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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