The GAO review included visits to 23 detention centers housing immigrants awaiting adjudication or deportation. The watchdog agency observed the centers -- run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency within the Homeland Security Department -- for compliance with nonbinding national detention standards.
Of the 23 facilities GAO reviewed, 17 had telephone systems allowing detainees to make free phone calls seeking assistance. In 16 of these 17 facilities, however, GAO found systemic problems hindering phone access. Issues ranged from inaccurate or outdated numbers posted by the phones to technical problems preventing completion of calls, the report (GAO-07-875) stated.
The review found instances where the centers fell short of standards in other areas, such as medical care, use of force and food services, but said these instances did not necessarily indicate a larger pattern of noncompliance.
"While it is true that the only pervasive problem we identified related to the telephone system -- a problem later confirmed by ICE's testing -- we cannot state that the other deficiencies we identified in our visits were isolated," said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, in the report.
GAO recommended that ICE regularly update the posted numbers for legal services, consulates and reporting violations of detainee treatment standards and test phone systems to ensure that they are in working order.
In a response to a draft of the report, Steven Pecinovsky, director of the Homeland Security Department's GAO/Office of the Inspector General Liaison Office, said ICE concurred with GAO's recommendations and had taken immediate steps to implement them. In particular, ICE has started random testing to ensure the phones can access the necessary numbers.
While GAO did not find evidence of widespread disregard for national detention standards, there have been recent calls for more oversight of immigrant detention facilities and codification of standards. According to the American Bar Association's Commission on Immigration, the fact that the standards are not codified means "their violation does not confer a cause of action in court."
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress to codify the standards, expressing concern over the causes of death for the 62 immigrants who have died in ICE custody since 2004.
GAO's report cited several instances of noncompliance in the standards for medical care, but almost all were a failure to complete the routine physical exams required for all detainees. The only other issue cited was the failure of one detention center to have a first aid kit available. The ACLU argued there are far more serious medical failures occurring in immigrant detention centers.
"Inadequate medical care has led to unnecessary suffering and death," the ACLU said in a statement. "In addition, there is no mechanism in place for reporting deaths in immigration detention to any oversight body, including the [Office of the Inspector General] and, therefore, there are no routine investigations into deaths in ICE custody."