ICE use of Solitary Confinement Extensive
May 21, 2019
The Intercept and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published an extensive report on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE’s) use of solitary confinement to punish immigrants incarcerated in ICE custody. The report was based on a review of 8,400 reported cases of immigrants placed in solitary confinement.
The U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has strongly spoken out against the use of solitary confinement except in the most extraordinary circumstances when all other options have been tried to protect a prisoner or detainee, or if they pose a unique threat to others, and then only used on a very limited bases. The U.N. has argued that use of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days constitutes torture.
Of the 8,400 cases reviewed over half of them were in excess of 15 days. 573 in excess of 90 days, and in 32 cases people were held in solitary for over a year. From the Intercept:
In nearly a third of the cases, detainees were described as having a mental illness, which made them especially vulnerable to breakdown if locked up alone in a small cell. Records reviewed by ICIJ describe detainees in isolation mutilating their genitals, gouging their eyes, cutting their wrists, and smearing their cells with feces.
The review found that immigrants held in the agency’s isolation cells had suffered hallucinations, fits of anger, and suicidal impulses. Former detainees told ICIJ that they experienced sleeplessness, flashbacks, depression, and memory loss long after release.
“People were being brutalized,” said Ellen Gallagher, who currently holds a supervisory role in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Gallagher has tried for years to sound the alarm within her agency about a wide range of abusive uses of solitary confinement at ICE detention centers.
The impact on detainees, especially those with mental illness, is severe:
ICIJ’s analysis found at least 373 instances of detainees being placed in isolation because they were potentially suicidal — and another 200-plus cases of people already in solitary confinement moved to “suicide watch” or another form of observation, in many cases in another solitary cell.
“This is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire,” Kenneth Appelbaum, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has examined ICE’s segregation practices as a DHS consultant, said of using solitary confinement to manage suicidal detainees. “This is a practice that exposes detainees to real psychological and physiological harm.”
Last year we wrote a report on detention policies that constitute torture and degrading treatment. Our review focuses on prolonged, indefinite detention, the use of child separation as a tactic, and the failure to provide adequate review of individual cases. By all of these standards, U.S. immigration policy enforcement constitutes violations of human rights and international law. In some cases, these practices constitute violations of U.S. law as well - particular legal standards put in place to protect those seeking asylum.
This is our country today, and importantly, it has been our country for over a decade. The use of solitary confinement, family separation and prolonged detention are practices that all predate the Trump administration. Trump’s administration has elevated the use of these dehumanizing tactics in an effort to deter future immigration, and score political points with the far-right. But he has been able to do this because of years of indifference to the situation of detainees. We can only hope the focus brought to Trump’s particular brand of cruelty will be the spark to move us to demand long-lasting change in our immigration system.
Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons Still Abused
Immigration policy is a microcosm of broader trends in our society. It casts a spotlight on abuse because the people in detention have not committed crimes. They are in "civil detention" and have limited access to fair processes. The injustice is thus striking. However, this country's manic addiction to mass incarceration and tendency toward official cruelty as punishment have deep roots. That immigration enforcement has adopted these harsh techniques is hardly surprising. The use of solitary confinement is no exception.
Despite years of efforts at reform - that have made a difference in some states to be sure - solitary confinement is still a practice that is abused by prison authorities in the United States. On any given day there are an estimated 61,000 people held in solitary confinement. 61,000. From an extensive report by Vox on solitary confinement:
Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators. They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American. The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.
Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years. Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemed that prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the U.N.’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days. Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”
Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms and a host of other outrages. But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.