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Judge rules shackling of immigrant detainees unconstitutional

Shackled prisoner
Shackled prisoner

"You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners." - Fyordor Dostoevsky

A federal district judge has ruled that the practice of shackling immigrant detainees by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during court proceedings is unconstitutional. Judge Michael Ponsor of the U.S. District Court (Massachusetts) ruled March 9 that the shackles were “dehumanizing” and “demoralizing,” and interfered with a detainee’s legal defense. Until the ruling, ICE made a practice of shackling all immigrant detainees at the waist, wrists, and ankles, even though most posed no security threat and many were requesting political asylum.

Courts had long ago ruled that shackling of criminal defendants in U.S. courts was unconstitutional, but ICE has been shackling detainees during court appearances since 2012. The decision came after Mark Reid, a legal permanent resident and a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, was detained and shackled during his hearing, and filed suit over his treatment. Judge Ponsor not only found the ICE practice degrading, but noted that during the hearing, Reid was unable to write notes to his lawyer or put on his glasses because of the shackles. Reid prevailed in his bond hearing, was released, and had his legal residency confirmed.

In his ruling, Judge Ponsor noted “To deny or minimize an individual’s dignity in an immigration proceeding, or to treat this essential attribute of human worth as anything less than fundamental simply because an immigration proceeding is titularly civil, would be an affront to due process.” Judge Ponsor did rule that, in the future, an assessment of possible violence from the detainee must be done before the use of shackles could be approved.

In January, the San Francisco ICE office agreed to stop the shackling of detainees who did not pose a security threat after a human rights lawsuit was filed.

The Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment (ICIE), a Dallas immigration advocacy group, has seen the inhuman shackling of foreign nationals detained by ICE first-hand. It points to the case of Yadira Verdusco, who was detained by Dallas ICE for nearly a year before being released in January. Verdusco suffered from a medical condition that often left her so weak, she could not walk. Even so, Dallas ICE agents would shackle her when she would travel to a doctor's office for treatment. At one point, Dallas ICE agents were confronted by law enforcement officials when they were seen dragging a weakened yet still shackled Verdusco to her cell at a local county jail. Dallas ICE officials were never reprimanded for their treatment of Verdusco.

ICIE said it welcomes the move to restore dignity to detainees by ending practices like the one Verdusco endured, but feels it is one of many improvements that must be made to the system

Victor Medina writes for Yahoo News and his political blog His other writing credits include The Dallas Morning News and He has served as a Dallas County election judge and on the Board of Directors of The Sixth Floor Museum. You can follow him on his blog, or on Twitter at @mrvictormedina. He can be reached by email at Click here to receive a weekly email update from To be notified of future stories by Victor Medina, click the SUBSCRIBE link here or at the top of this page.

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