Failures in the System of Immigrant Detention: The Role of the US Marshals Service


Over the recent decades, political and cultural shifts in the United States have caused the media to pay closer attention to the nation’s rapidly growing immigrant population. Although the Immigration and Customs Enforcement is formally tasked with housing immigration detainees, it is evident that the US Marshals Services plays one of the central roles in the detainment of immigrants as well. The following research paper argues that the existing system of housing immigrant detainees in Marshals-funded jails is lackluster due to poor living conditions and the lack of medical care provided to the jail population. It emphasizes the importance of reinforcing more stringent inspection standards for the Marshals Office in relation to the jail facilities they have agreements with. Furthermore, the paper provides examples and relevant statistical data regarding the distinctive flaws in ICE’s detention centers structure.


The world is changing rapidly and the United States often acts as the first explorer of what that change might offer. As one of the forces behind globalization and industrialization, the U.S. has become a nation that nurtured diversity, immigrants, and multiculturalism. Yet the economic and cultural benefits of immigration seem to be competing with the long-term issues surrounding illegal immigrants. Over the past few decades, immigration detention has grown in size and scope.

Immigration has been an integral part of modern-day political debate in the United States for decades now. Over the past 5 years especially, the policymakers, media, various government agencies, and experts have raised their concerns over the impact of immigration, and illegal immigration, in particular, on the nation’s economic and cultural prospects. Talks about Trump’s controversial stance on immigration policy as well as the much promised Wall have shaped the American political and social climates in the recent years. Immigration continues to be one of the issues Congress is unwilling to reach an agreement on, which is why executive and judicial decisions regarding immigration reform and criminalization often vary drastically depending on the administration in power and the power dynamics in the Congress. Although immigrants have been a large part of the United States’ population for centuries, the government still fails to address the challenges surrounding immigrants and those seeking asylum. According to the official data, around 45 million people, an equivalent of 14 percent of the population, in the U.S. are immigrants out of more than 328 million, and the number continues to grow each year. The primary challenge this paper focuses on is the lack of accountability the US Marshals Service has when it comes to immigrant detention facilities with questionable living conditions and the lack of access to the necessary medical care it oversees.

As the events of 9/11 and the attitudes put forward by the Trump administration largely formed the nation’s policy regarding immigrants, criminalization of migration has gained momentum in the debates surrounding American border control. The statistics related to illegal immigrants in the country are alarming. In the federal fiscal year of 2019, an estimated number of 50,000 people were being detained daily at facilities monitored by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The issues arise as the conditions of such detainment are revealed to the public. It is important to mention that immigrant detainees do not have a right to guarantees legal defense or a formal hearing before a judge. Immigration detention is legally considered a civil penalty rather than explicit punishment, which makes the status of detainees rather unclear.

This paper focuses on the criticism surrounding the conditions immigrant detainees often have to endure. In order to examine the failures of the US legal system, the paper takes a closer look at the US Marshals Office (USMS). The USMS is the primary reason as to why detention centers get away with subpar standards of care for immigrant detainees and inhumane conditions in such facilities. Therefore, it is the only agency capable of exercising its influence on detainment facilities it monitors to uphold standards of safe and secure care for and custody of detainees. The paper examines the history behind the US Marshals, the scope of the problem of immigration detention, the disregard for detainees’ mental health, the misconceptions surrounding the Marshals, as well as the failures and shortcomings of current inspection standards of jail facilities by deputy Marshals..

Literature Review

In order to discuss the role of the US Marshals Office in profiting off the poor conditions of immigration detainment practices, it is crucial to dissect how exactly the system of detention centers is structured. ICE does not own that many detention centers itself. Instead, it concludes numerous contracts with local and private jail facilities using an intricate web of agreements with city officials, counties, and private entities. In general, ICE detainees are detained in four primary types of detention centers.

The first one refers to Service Processing Centers, which are directly owned by ICE. Despite the formal ownership, ICE cannot fully support these centers, making them depend almost entirely on private contractors. Furthermore, they only House just over 7 percent of the entirety of ICE’s daily population (Jameson, 2020). The second type is privately-owned jails in direct contractual agreements with ICE known as Contract Detention Facilities. Jameson (2020) notes that although there are only nine of such centers across the United States, each one houses a significant number of detainees. As for the third type, it includes local jails bonded with ICE through Intergovernmental Service Agreements. In this case, state and local officials act as intermediaries between ICE and jails. Most often, ICE has to contract with a county sheriff for a local jail to provide the necessary bedspace at a pre-established rate. It is important to add that the majority of ICE detainees are housed in the third type of centers. Data demonstrates that “in the first part of the 2020 fiscal year, two-thirds of ICE’s ADP [average daily population] was housed in IGSAs [Intergovernmental Service Agreements], DIGSAs [Dedicated IGSAs], or Family Detention Centers (which are also owned by counties)” (Jameson, 2020, pp. 281-282). However, the focus of this paper will be on the fourth type of detention centers.

The final type of such detention centers is the local jails often in close proximity to federal court houses, which have Intergovernmental Agreements with the US Marshals Office, while Ice simply uses them. Thus, this category of ICE detention operates through not one but two intermediaries: state or local officials as well as USMS. It is important to acknowledge that the Marshals does not itself own any jail facilities. Instead, it has numerous contracts with dozens of local, state, and private jails across the country, which hold thousands of immigrant detainees in exchange for a set price the USMS is willing to pay. These agreements usually date decades back, even long before the creation of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Jameson, 2020). The principle is simple as “ICE has custody over its own detainees, but pays for their detention at the per firm rate specified by the USMS contract” (Jameson, 2020, p. 282). As for the numbers, there are around 1,200 USMS-contracted jail facilities in the U.S., the population of which accounts for more than 13% of ICE’s average daily population (Jameson, 2020).

The key distinction between this type of detention centers and all the other ones is the fact that it is often most preferable and beneficial to ICE. The agency is either listed as a user of bedspace or authorized to hold custody over detainees in the USMS IGSAs through slight modifications in contracts. As a result, ICE is not overly dependent on formal agreements and can switch housing for detainees without the need to make changes to legally binding contracts through rounds upon rounds of negotiation. XXXXXX Although it is evident that ICE IGSAs and USMS IGSAs are similar, this paper focuses specifically on the jail facilities the US Marshals oversees. They present unique challenges and generate a number of unique issues related to detainment conditions, inspection protocols, medical care, and many others. It is crucial to recognize that USMS IGSAs are not simply contracts written decades ago and with no actual impact on the course of events in immigration law. The facilities provided by local and state officials, as well as private contractors, and managed by USMS play a significant role in shaping a nationwide policy of immigration criminalization and detention. As it is, one of the paper’s main objectives is to argue that there are indisputable flaws in the structure and operations of the United States’ immigration detention system, often resulting in fatal outcomes. It is exceptionally integral for the new generation of learners to acknowledge such shortcomings of an existing system and searching for ways to dismantle it.

Historically, the US Marshals Office has taken on an exceptionally important role of ensuring justice where state and local law enforcement agencies will not administer it themselves for some reason. The US Marshals’ official web-site notes that it was George Washington who appointed the first 13 Marshals and tasked them with carrying out the will of federal courts (U.S. Federal Government, U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). Over the past couple of decades, the responsibilities of the agency have grown to include pretrial detention. Particularly due to Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs initiated in the 1980s, thousands were incarcerated on federal drug charges and faced lengthy detainment (Wessler, 2019). Furthermore, the 1984 Bail Reform Act “made it easier for judges to detain any federal defendant deemed a danger to the public, or a flight risk” (Wessler, 2019, para. 26). As a result, the inmate population has increased almost three times between 1985 and 1995 (Wessler, 2019).

War on drugs was not the only political phenomenon contributing to the growth in the inmate population. Due to the events of 2001 and those preceding them, the US government has started a large-scale war on immigrants. This has resulted in the number of the Marshals detainees reaching 60,000 a decade after 9/11 (United States Marshals Service, 2019). Private facilities became the backbone of pretrial detention making the US Marshals Office one of the most influential agencies in relation to the country’s rapidly growing immigrant population. It is crucial to recognize that “immigrant defendants are more likely to be locked up as they face charges because foreign citizenship is considered a flight risk factor” (Wessler, 2019, para. 25). Although during the Obama administration the number of detainees slowly started to decline, Trump’s time in office led to a substantial increase in detainment, especially of immigrant defendants. As a result, the Congress has spent more than $155 millions on pretrial detention, approving the funds to go directly to the Marshals (Cochrane & Hirschfeld Davis, 2019). Despite the controversy surrounding this decision, the money continues to flow directly to the US Marshals Office, which then redistributes it to local detention facilities without the proper oversight measures in place.

Furthermore, it is crucial to discuss the alarming rates of suicide among migrants enduring ICE detention. Historically, there has been a disregard for the mental well-being of detainees. Although these people are much more likely to experience high levels of anxiety, depression, or even to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the attention they receive in regards to mental health is substandard (Erfani et al., 2021). The environment migrants in ICE detention are subjected to living in makes them especially susceptible either to developing a new psychological condition or exacerbating already existing ones.

As a result, the lack of well-coordinated efforts to provide ICE detainees with the much needed mental healthcare leads to a high risk for suicide. Erfani and his colleagues (2021) have conducted a study to determine an estimated suicide rate of those detained by ICE over the past ten years. They decided to perform a retrospective cohort analysis of the data related to suicides among the chosen population between 2010 and 2020. Their findings were extremely concerning as they revealed that the mean number of suicides and suicide rates increased significantly in just one year, from 2019 to 2020. Erfani et al. (2021) concluded that “in 2020, the suicide rate increased 11.0 times the prior 10-year average to 3.4 suicides per 100,000 admissions” (p. 416). This indicates a clear failure of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention programs in employing critical medical staff to ensure detainees receive proper mental health evaluation and high-quality care.

As for the US Marshals Office in particular, the situation does not seem to be much better. Compared to the general incarcerated population, the rate of suicides among immigrant detainees is awfully close to that of the county jail population, which disproportionately includes numerous people with serious mental conditions. Out of 158 detainees proclaimed dead in the US Marshals-controlled jails, 47 killed themselves, according to the official reports obtained by Wessler (2019). Despite such alarmingly high numbers, little has been done to ensure suicide prevention initiatives are implemented among immigrant detainees. The US Marshals Office has a prevention training document that advices correctional officers to check on cells of suicidal inmates every 1/4 of an hour. However, Wessler (2019) notes that “the Marshals’ own annual inspection form notes a requirement for cell checks only twice an hour, and the binding agreements that the Marshals sign with local facility operators require only that” (para. 47). Thus, it is evident that the mental health of immigrant detainees is largely disregarded as a matter of no significant importance. Yet such neglect leads to dozens of inmates committing suicides although some lives could be saved if only the Marshals initiated more stringent suicide prevention measures at the facilities the Office controls.

The primary argument in opposition to the one this paper supports is that the US Marshals Office is simply willing to compromise with the owners of local private facilities because it urgently needs access to jails in proximity to federal courthouses. The stance that posits that the Marshals is dependent on local jails is not entirely incorrect. Indeed, due to former President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, there are rarely enough beds to house immigrant detainees across the United States. As mentioned by Wessler (2021), the US Marshals’ daily detainee population has increased to more than 60,000 people in the federal fiscal year of 2019. As prosecution of undocumented migrants and border crossers became a priority during the time of the Trump administration, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has faced an actual housing crisis. This crisis is often cited as the main reason as to why the Marshals has to abide by local jurisdiction and be extremely careful as to not pressure local jail facilities to undergo frequent inspection. According to one Justice Department’s inspector, the threat of local facilities terminating contracts with USMS is far greater than the risk of not enforcing certain standards and procedures in the detainment of immigrants.

Yet such logic is fundamentally flawed due to three main reasons. Firstly, the very idea behind the US Marshals Office lies in administering justice in cases where state and local officials fail to do so. Therefore, the agency refusing the responsibility “to meaningfully monitor the local jails that hold its detainees is particularly ironic” (Wessler, 2019, para. 23). Secondly, according to the records available to the public, there has never been a case of a local private jail withdrawing from an agreement after the federal officials approached them with a set of demands (Wessler, 2019). Thirdly, the Marshals disproportionately holds the power to dictate the core rules of partnerships with local detention facilities. These jails depend on the funding provided by the agency in order to function properly and produce enough revenue to survive. That being said, it is apparent that the argument against the Marshals demanding more stringent measures to be put in place at detention facilities is based on misconceptions and obvious misinformation.

Nowadays, the US Marshals Service, an extension of the US Department of Justice, helps to house thousands of people awaiting a formal trial. Statistics demonstrate that, in the federal fiscal year of 2018, the number of people held in facilities managed by USMS was 240,000 (Wessler, 2019). In fact, this number is so high that one could reach a conclusion that “the Marshals hold more people than Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more than all the county jails of any state except California and Texas” (Wessler, 2019, para. 5). As mentioned earlier, although the USMS can contractually use the jail facilities, the agency does not own or run them.

Thus, the Marshals plays a central role in pretrial detention without having the tangible resources, which would directly bind it to detention centers, such as property or facilities. Again, detainment of immigrants is becoming more of an urgent issue as the Marshals population reaches its all-time high. The “zero tolerance” policy enforced by the former President’s administration has caused such growth. In fact, Wessler (2019) highlights that more than two-thirds of the prosecutions, which took place between October 2018 and April 2019, were focused on immigration crimes. As a result, there has been an increased need in bedspace for detainees. The USMS has acted as a life raft by entering into contracts with failing local and private jails. Therefore, the new wave of detainees depends largely on the Marshals detention centers and the conditions they offer.

It is crucial to examine the reports of inspections conducted by USMS in relation to its jail facilities used for detainment of immigrants. The agency files rather standard, spotless inspection reports every year, without any references to poor living conditions, the lack of medical care, or the violation of detainees’ rights. However, Seth Wessler, an investigative journalist, has published an extensive piece, which demonstrated the flaws of USMS detention centers by reviewing over 5 years of inspection records of a number of facilities across the U.S. The pretrial detention system the Marshals is tasked with monitoring has a massive failure of oversight. It simply supplies its facilities with millions of dollars without holding them accountable or inspecting them properly. The USMS has spent more than $1.5 billion on its existing IGSAs in 2018 (Wessler, 2019). This money is crucial to sustain these jails yet the Marshals does not exercise its power of the failing jails to benefit detainees in terms of their housing conditions and access to medical assistance.

The Marshals Service is in an exceptionally powerful position to influence the current detention system and make a significant change in one of the country’s biggest segments of the modern carceral system. Instead of exerting powerful oversight, USMS simply hides behind the curtain of non-accountability as it does not directly operate detention facilities or holds custody of detainees unlike ICE. It manages to remain invisible yet it has the ability to cause a revolution in the treatment of the pretrial jail population and immigrants, in particular. The Marshals has to become the center of attention and an integral part of the conversation surrounding the failures of the existing detention system. There have to be frameworks initiated by the government as well as the pressure from the public to ensure USMS’ contracts with private corporations and county sheriffs do not make it less accountable for the flaws in immigration detention any longer.

Given the recent outrage received by the Metropolitan Correctional Center located in New York concerning the suicide committed by Jeffrey Epstein, it is time to turn the attention of the public towards the US Marshals. It is evident that the international outrage was targeted in the wrong direction as Epstein was, in fact, a Marshals detainee (Wessler, 2019). The fact that the agency shuffled Epstein between various facilities seemingly went under the radar of the press and, consequently, the public. The case of Epstein is just an example of the US Marshals Service’s capabilities in regards to remaining invisible, while playing a key role in the detention process.

The US Marshals has an extremely well-placed vantage point, which allows it to have access to first-hand data about the conditions the detainees are in and actually have enough power to change them. Despite the growing amount of failing jails USMS takes under its wing to make IGSAs out of them and the role the Marshals now holds as an interlocking agent between the federal criminal system and immigration detention, its actual involvement in the custody and control of those in detainment is minimal. Rationally, the IS Marshals would serve as yet another layer of security, providing a certain level of assurance that the custody and care of those in pretrial detention meet the standards and are at a high level in general. Yet as of now, this is not the role the Marshals plays in the detention system, opting for a neutral stance, lack of involvement, and inspections once a year instead. Citing its inability to control local, state, and private jails it has contracts with, the agency refuses the responsibility to make sure that these facilities uphold the standards of detainment. There is an overall attitude of indifference, which would be otherwise scrutinized if only the media and policymakers paid more attention to the Marshals’ attempts to hide from its direct role as an intermediary between ICE and local governments.

The lack of outrage surrounding USMS indifference is fueled partially by the agency’s refusal to release information about the state of jails and the conditions of immigrant detainment in them. According to the data obtained by journalists as a result of multiple court proceedings and the eventual release of a fraction of the relevant information by USMS, over a three-year period, between June 2016 and June 2019, 158 people died while in detention at Marshals facilities (Wessler, 2019). Evidently, it is a death rate that “far outstrips that of the parallel federal system run by ICE, but in particular with the troublingly high death rates in county jails in general” (Wesssler, 2019, para. 19). Citing the privacy rights of detainees, the agency has continuously tried to fight the court-ordered release of detainees’ medical information. However, there is a general agreement that, based on the data obtained, such efforts have less to do with the privacy rights of dead inmates, and more with the attempts to hide medical failures and the lack of proper resources provided to detainees in need of them.

Research Design

As for the research methods, this paper was written based on an extensive review of relevant literature. Regarding the resources used, the focus has been on official, first-hand documents published within the last five years. However, the reference list has not been limited to official reports as the paper incorporated data from respectable publications such as The New York Times as well as academic journals, including the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal. In regards to the exclusion criteria, sources published earlier than five years ago, questionable web-sites, and blogs were considered ineligible to be included in the research paper. After searching for the sources, they were carefully examined, analyzed, and interpreted in a unique way in order to be presented as evidence in the paper. It is also important to note that the simple research design has suited the type of the research paper exceptionally well. Not spending too much time on sorting out the intricacies of the methodology used for the assignment allowed to focus the attention on scrutinizing the resources to craft a well-researched argumentative paper.


The personas of the marshals are often romanticized as they are often portrayed as men chasing fugitives and punishing bandits in popular media, including movies, songs, and books, which have since become cult classics. However, in real life, the practical, day-to-day responsibilities of the marshals could not be more mundane. The majority of the time is spent by ensuring court security or the safe transportation of detainees. In fact, the marshals receive only 5-6 months of formal training, none of it at least partially centered on jail operations and management (Wessler, 2019). Yet it is the US Marshals Office that is tasked with coordinating pretrial detainment at hail facilities. As a typical deputy US Marshal is required only to go through basic training courses on confinement conditions and general facilities management, they lack the appropriate level of expertise to partake in routine inspections of private jails. The paradox lies in the fact that people without proper knowledge, experience, or education have the responsibility of monitoring compliance with the standards of detainment at the jails the US Marshals agency decides to partner with.

Instead of the training mentioned above, the US Marshals Office provides deputy marshals with a 13-page document titled USM-218. Formally, it is supposed to be a series of guidelines and an extensive form for conducting annual inspections of facilities the agency is contractually connected with. In fact, USM-218 was designed with the intent of ensuring “the safe, secure and humane care and custody of those prisoners” (as cited in Wessler, 2019, para. 61). Yet if compared with federal prison inspections, the Marshals’ attempt at evaluating the safety and security of care provided to detainees is lackluster. In the first case, inspections are well-coordinated as the government invests a significant amount of resources in hiring experts to carefully examine data, conduct interviews with both prison staff and inmates, and assess operational practices. On the other hand, in the second case, the people who perform inspections are deputy Marshals with less than a year of formal training and limited to a couple of hours per an inspection a year.

USM-218 is a simple form, which includes mostly a series of checkboxes. As a result, the US Marshals primarily depends only on jails themselves to provide the information for inspections, which eliminates any possibility of a rational, evidence-based assessment. As a result, detainees are subjected entirely to the integrity of jail authorities that are required nothing else besides minimal basic essentials. Wessler (2019) argues that one of the other issues surrounding USM-218 forms is that they provide very little information about the facilities. He adds that “information as fundamental as the total number of detainees is sometimes wrong, and tallies of assaults or suicides in some cases conflict with inspections conducted by other agencies” (Wessler, 2019, para. 68).

The author also provides a series of examples in his investigative piece for Mother Jones. For instance, while a deputy Marshals inspector specified there had been no suicide attempts at one of Ohio’s detention centers monitored by the agency in 2018, the federal report for that year clearly indicates the opposite: there had been dozens of suicide attempts at that facility. Another example is the fact that the US Marshals Office has provided acceptable inspection reports of one of the facilities in Georgia. Yet ICE, which also held detainees there, “found the facility deficient in two-thirds of the areas its inspectors examined, from health care to the operation of solitary confinement” (Wessler, 2019, para. 66). Thus, it is evident that the primary tool behind the Marshals annual inspections is unreliable, adding to the existing argument against the validity and efficiency of such inspections to begin with.


Immigration has been a longstanding issue in the United States as the country build by immigrants seemed to be unable to maneuver the new waves of people coming to the U.S. from all over the world in search of a better future for themselves and their families. The events of 9/11 and the shift they have caused in regards to the public’s attitudes towards immigrants led to the first wave of attempts at immigration reform. The Trump administration and its promises of limiting illegal border cross to minimum have initiated a stir in policy making and public debate as well. Trump’s “zero tolerance” stance, in particular, resulted in thousands of immigrants being detained for breaking immigration law. However, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not seem to be ready to house such a big number of detainees. As a result, the US Marshals Service facilitated much needed bedspace for those in detainment at its old and new IGSAs across the country. It simply contacted more county sheriffs and private entities to enter into contracts for the use of bedspace by those in custody of ICE. USMS chooses to neglect its responsibilities and ignore the alarming issues surrounding immigration detention in the U.S., including high death rates among inmates as well as the increased risks of suicide. Instead, it cites its own inspections as the evidence needed to claim that the detainees are housed in the best conditions possible. Despite that, these inspections are far from being trustworthy.

As a consequence, the US Marshals has only strengthened its position as one of the most powerful agencies in regards to pretrial detention. It does not simply act as an intermediary between ICE and local governments or private contractors. Instead, it has the power and influence needed to serve as an additional layer of assurance that the level of care and custody of detainees meets predetermined expectations. The agency itself argues it can not play such a role as it depends entirely on the facilities it has agreements with. Thus, if its demands are not favored by the authorities of such facilities, there will simply be no bedspace to house detainees, leading to an actual crisis. The fact that USMS fails to account for is that it contracts mostly failing jails. Therefore, they are the ones that depend on the Marshals for money to operate and survive. The threat of losing millions of dollars of revenue annually would surely make such authorities reconsider their detention practices and the conditions detainees have to endure. Thus, it is apparent that the Marshals Service has the position of power needed to ensure detainment in the United States is up to the global standards of developed, prosperous nations. As the number of detainees is close to reaching historic highs, USMS seems to be more needed than ever. Yet it is nowhere to be found except on annual two-hour inspection of jail facilities it is supposed to be responsible for.


Erfani, P., Chin, E. T., Lee, C. H., Uppal, N., & Peeler, K. R. (2021). Suicide rates of migrants in United States immigration detention (2010-2020). AIMS Public Health, 8(3), 416–420.

Jameson, E. (2020). ICE detention through U.S. Marshals agreements. Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, 35, 279-318. Web.

United States Marshals Service. (2019). FY 2020 performance budget President’s budget. Web.

U.S. Federal Government, U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Historical timeline. Web.

Wessler, S. F. (2019). Inside the US Marshals’ secretive, deadly detention empire. Mother Jones. Web.

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DemoEssays. (2022) 'Failures in the System of Immigrant Detention: The Role of the US Marshals Service'. 22 December.


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1. DemoEssays. "Failures in the System of Immigrant Detention: The Role of the US Marshals Service." December 22, 2022.


DemoEssays. "Failures in the System of Immigrant Detention: The Role of the US Marshals Service." December 22, 2022.