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Immigration officials plan to destroy detention records on sex abuse, solitary confinement

Kate Morrissey, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO -- Immigration officials have asked permission to destroy records of sexual abuse, death and solitary confinement, among others, in detention facilities.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement would get rid of sexual abuse and death in custody records after 20 years and solitary confinement records after three years. Advocates and government watchdog groups are worried that eradication of such records would make it more difficult to know what conditions are like inside immigration detention facilities, which are often owned and operated by private prison companies that have contracts with the federal government.

"We have an agency that does a lot of self-monitoring and self investigation, and there's not sufficient opportunity for public scrutiny of their operations," said Victoria Lopez, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. "It makes the documents they're proposing to destroy even more important."

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE, said getting rid of these records is routine, government record maintenance.

"ICE is working to be in full compliance with the federal records authority," Mack said.

Federal government agencies cannot destroy records without permission from the National Archives and Records Administration. Agencies can request permission to get rid of certain types of records on scheduled intervals.

An official from the National Archives has preliminarily approved ICE's request with the justification that sexual abuse and assault files as well as investigations into deaths in custody do "not document significant actions of federal officials." For the solitary confinement records, the official said that such records have "little or no research value" as reason for getting rid of them.

Miriam Kleiman, spokeswoman for the National Archives, said that between 2 percent and 5 percent of records reviewed each year become permanent. The rest are scheduled for destruction on timelines based on when they are no longer needed for the government agency to conduct business.

"NARA regularly appraises death review and investigation files as temporary," Kleiman said, referring to two destruction schedules that get rid of records relating to federal prisoner deaths on two-year and five-year intervals.

ICE's proposed timeline, which destroys death records after 20 years, is now in a public comment period before it can go into effect.

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