Alien Detention Standards:

Telephone Access Problems Were Pervasive at Detention Facilities; Other Deficiencies Did Not Show a Pattern of Noncompliance

GAO-07-875: Published: Jul 6, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 6, 2007.

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The total number of aliens detained per year by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased from about 95,000 in fiscal year 2001 to 283,000 in 2006. The care and treatment of these detained aliens is a significant challenge to ICE. GAO was asked to review ICE's implementation of its detention standards for aliens in its custody. GAO reviewed (1) detention facilities' compliance with ICE's detention standards, (2) ICE's compliance review process, and (3) how detainee complaints regarding conditions of confinement are handled. To conduct its work, GAO reviewed DHS documents, interviewed program officials, and visited 23 detention facilities of varying size, type, and geographic location.

GAO's observations at 23 alien detention facilities showed systemic telephone system problems at 16 of 17 facilities that use the pro bono telephone system, but no pattern of noncompliance for other standards GAO reviewed. At facilities that use the ICE detainee pro bono telephone system, GAO encountered significant problems in making connections to consulates, pro bono legal providers, or the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) complaint hotline. Monthly performance data provided by the phone system contractor indicates the rate of successful connections through the detainee pro bono telephone system was never above 74 percent. ICE officials stated there was little oversight of the telephone contract. In June 2007, ICE requested an OIG audit of the contract,stating that the contractor did not comply with the terms and conditions of the contract. Other instances of deficiencies GAO observed varied across facilities visited but did not appear to show a pattern of noncompliance. These deficiencies involved medical care, use of hold rooms, use of force, food service, recreational opportunities, access to legal materials, facility grievance procedures, and overcrowding. ICE annual compliance reviews of detention facilities identified deficiencies similar to those found by GAO. However, insufficient internal controls and weaknesses in ICE's compliance review process resulted in ICE's failure to identify telephone system problems at most facilities GAO visited. ICE's inspection worksheet used by its detention facility reviewers did not require that a reviewer confirm that detainees are able to make successful connections through the detainee pro bono telephone system. Detainee complaints may be filed with several governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Detainee complaints mostly involved legal access, conditions of confinement, property issues, human and civil rights, medical care, and employee misconduct at the facility. The primary way for detainees to file complaints is to contact the OIG. OIG investigates the most serious complaints and refers the remainder to other DHS components.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforemcent (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. Monthly performance data provided by the phone system contractor indicated that the rate of successful connections through the detainee pro bono system was never above 74 percent. ICE officials stated that there was little oversight of the telephone contract. A senior ICE offical in ICE's Office of Acquisition, which is responsible for overseeing contractor performance, said that the office faced signficant challenges relating to turnover, understaffing, and loss of institutional knowledge regarding contractor oversight and management. Accordingly, we recommended that ICE, in competing a new telephone contract, ensure that the new contract contains adequate protections and recourse for the government in the event of contractor nonperformance. In response to the recommendation, ICE included a provision in its new contract award stipulating that 50 percent of the contractor's debit and collect call revenues at primary ICE detention facilities are to be held in escrow until released after a semi-annual review pending performance. ICE officials also stated that normal remedies for non-performance are provided under Federal Acquisition Regulation. Further, officials stated that the contract is a zero cost contract to the Government; thus, the contractor will not receive payment if it does not provide service. According to ICE officials, no complaints have been submitted by detainees or the field about the contractor since the award of a contract to a new provider in 2009. ICE officials stated that trouble calls, recorded in a weekly report from the contractor normally involve equipment or service outages by the local telephone service provider and problems are corrected within 24 hours about 95 percent of the time. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to, in competing a new telephone contract, ensure that the new contract contains adequate protections and recourse for the government in the event of contractor nonperformance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. Monthly performance data provided by the phone system contractor indicated that the rate of successful connections through the detainee pro bono system was never above 74 percent. ICE officials stated that there was little oversight of the telephone contract. A senior ICE official in ICE's Office of Acquisition, which is responsible for overseeing contractor performance, said that the office faced significant challenges relating to turnover, understaffing, and loss of institutional knowledge regarding contractor oversight and management. Accordingly, we recommended that ICE in regard to the contract with Public Communications Services, explore what recourse the government has available to it for contractor nonperformance. In response to the recommendation, ICE stated that a new contract to Talton Communications was awarded on May 6, 2009. According to ICE officials, no complaints have been submitted by detainees or the field about the contractor since the award of a contract to a new provider. ICE officials stated that trouble calls, recorded in a weekly report from the contractor normally involve equipment or service outages by the local telephone service provider and problems are corrected within 24 hours about 95 percent of the time. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to, in regard to the contract with Public Communications Services, explore what recourse the government has available to it for contractor nonperformance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. Monthly performance data provided by the phone system contractor indicated that the rate of successful connections through the detainee pro bono system was never above 74 percent. ICE officials stated that there was little oversight of the telephone contract. A senior ICE offical in ICE's Office of Acquisition, which is responsible for overseeing contractor performance, said that the office faced signficant challenges relating to turnover, understaffing, and loss of institutional knowledge regarding contractor oversight and management. Accordingly, we recommended that ICE establish supervisory controls and procedures, including appropriate staffing, to ensure that the Office of Detention and Removal and the Office of Acquisition staff are properly monitoring contractor performance. Subsequent to GAO's 2007 report on ICE's detainee telephone system, in October 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), conducted an audit of ICE's detainee telephone system and made recommendations to ensure contractor compliance with the financial provisions contained in the existing and future telephone services contracts and that individuals assigned to oversee these contracts are knowledgeable in financial matters. On November 16, 2010, ICE issued, "Detention Standards Compliance Unit Standard Operating Procedure 10-001," which provides guidance establishing requirements and procedures in support of the DHS OIG's audit results. The actions include ensuring that a contracting officer is assigned with an appropriate level of training for this responsibility, documentation is submitted by the contractor on a monthly basis related to the pricing system afforded to detainees by the contractor, and an evaluation is conducted by the contracting officer on a semi-annual basis to compare contractor pricing to industry standards. According to ICE officials, no complaints have been submitted by detainees or the field about the contractor since the award of a contract to a new provider in 2009. ICE officials stated that trouble calls, recorded in a weekly report from the contractor normally involve equipment or service outages by the local telephone service provider and problems are corrected within 24 hours about 95 percent of the time. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to establish supervisory controls and procedures, including appropriate staffing, to ensure that DRO and Office of Acquisitions staff are properly monitoring contractor performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. Accordingly, we recommended that ICE establish procedures for identifying changes to phone numbers available from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In response to our recommendation, in December 2008, ICE issued new Performance Based National Detention Standards, including a telephone access standard which requires that updated telephone and consulate lists be posted in detainee housing units. Further, the telephone standard requires that weekly accuracy checks of consulate phone numbers be performed by the national phone service provider and ICE field staff make random calls to test pre-programmed numbers for the DHS OIG, free legal providers, consulates, attorneys, and other numbers determined by ICE. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to direct ICE staff to establish procedures for identifying any changes to phone numbers available from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Department of State, and the OIG and for promptly updating the pro bono telephone numbers posted in detention facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. Accordingly, we recommended that ICE require the posting in detention facilities of instructions for alternative means for detainees to complete calls in the event that the ICE pro bono telephone system is not functioning properly. In response to our recommendation, in December 2008, ICE issued new Performance Based National Detention Standards, including a telephone access standard which requires that facilities post telephone access rules where detainees may easily see them in a language that they can understand. If limitations of an existing phone system preclude meeting requirements, the facility administrator must notify ICE so that a means of telephone access can be provided. Further, the telephone standard states that if the detainee telephone system is generally limited to collect calls, detainees can still make direct or free calls to the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, free legal service providers, consulates, and attorneys via a 1-800 number. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to require the posting in detention facilities of instructions for alternative means for detainees to complete calls in the event that the ICE pro bono telephone system is not functioning properly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. Insufficient internal controls and weaknesses in ICE's compliance review process resulted in ICE's failure to identify telephone system problems. ICE's inspection worksheet used by detention facility reviewers did not require that a reviewer confirm that detainees were able to make successful connections through the detainee telephone system. Accordingly, we recommended that ICE amend its compliance review inspection process related to the detainee telephone access standard to include measures to ensure frequent testing to confirm that the ICE pro bono telephone system is functioning properly, and revisions to its compliance review worksheet to require ICE reviewers, while conducting annual reviews of the telephone access standard at detention facilities, to test the detainee pro bono telephone system by attempting to connect calls and record any automated voice messages as to why the call is not being put through. In response to our recommendation, in December 2008, ICE issued new Performance Based National Detention Standards which included amendments to the detainee telephone access standard to ensure monitoring of telephone services. The telephone access standard now includes requirements for facility staff to test detainee telephone systems on a daily basis to ensure that the systems are functionining properly and report any problems to facility or ICE personnel. In addition, ICE field staff are required to test detainee telephones on a weekly basis to verify serviceability, report any problems to the appropriate ICE point of contact, and document these tests for random audits by the Detention Standards Compliance Unit. In addition, in 2009, ICE awarded a new contract to Talton Communications to operate the detainee telephone system. According to ICE officials, the contractor has the capability to remotely test phones and conducts tests on a weekly basis in addition to the weekly tests conducted by ICE field staff. In addition, ICE officials stated that no complaints have been submitted by detainees or the field about the contractor since the award of the new contract. ICE officials stated that trouble calls, recorded in a weekly report from the contractor normally involve equipment or service outages by the local telephone service provider and problems are corrected within 24 hours about 95 percent of the time. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to amend the Office of Denention and Removal (DRO) compliance inspection process relating to the detainee telephone access standard to include (1) measures to ensure that facility and/or ICE staff frequently test to confirm that the ICE pro bono telephone system is functioning properly, and (2) revisions to ICE's compliance review worksheet to require ICE reviewers, while conducting annual reviews of the telephone access standard at detention facilities, to test the detainee pro bono telephone system by attempting to connect calls and record any automated voice messages as to why the call is not being put through.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, we reported that during field visits to 23 detention facilities, we observed systemic problems with the pro bono telephone system at 16 of the 17 detention facilities that use the system. At 16 detention facilities we visited where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contracted with a private vendor for a pro bono phone system, often we could not make successful connections due to technical problems within the system. Further, there were insufficient internal controls at the facilities to ensure that posted phone numbers were kept up to date or otherwise accurate. In addition, ICE lacked a formalized tracking process for documenting detainee complaints which hindered its ability to identify potential patterns of noncompliance that may be system wide and ensure that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon if necessary. Accordingly, to ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, we recommended that ICE develop a formal tracking system to ensure that all detainee complaints referred to the Office of Detention and Removal are reviewed and the disposition, including any corrective action, is recorded for later examination. In response, ICE officials stated that a formal complaint tracking process is now in place with the new detainee telephone system contract vendor, Talton Communications. In addition, ICE officials stated that a detainee complaint hotline number is posted near facility telephones. According to ICE, detainee complaints are recorded in the external and internal weekly issue log and sent for repair. ICE Subject Matter Experts (including employees or contractors representing ICE) are required to followup and confirm that issues have been repaired or addressed. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that detainees can make telephone calls to access legal services, report complaints, and obtain assistance from their respective consulates, as specified in ICE National Detention Standards and that all detainee complaints are reviewed and acted upon as necessary, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to develop a formal tracking system to ensure that all detainee complaints referred to DRO are reviewed and the disposition, including any corrective action, is recorded for later examination.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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