‘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.