Federal records show growing use of solitary confinement for immigrants

The U.S. government has placed detained immigrants in solitary confinement more than 14,000 times in the past five years, and the average duration is nearly double 15 days. limit which the United Nations has said may constitute torture, according to a new analysis from federal records by researchers at Harvard and the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights.

The report, based on government records from 2018 to 2023 and interviews with several dozen former detainees, noted cases of extreme physical, verbal and sexual abuse against immigrants held in solitary confinement cells. The New York Times reviewed the original records cited in the report, spoke to data analysts and interviewed former detainees to corroborate their stories.

In total, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is detaining more than 38,000 people, compared to around 15,000 at the start of the Biden administration in January 2021, according to an independent tracking system maintained by Syracuse University. An increasing proportion of detainees are held in private prison facilities with few means of accountability, and preliminary data from 2023 suggests a “marked increase” in the use of solitary confinement, according to the report.

An ICE spokesman, Mike Alvarez, said in a statement that 15 entities oversee ICE detention centers to “ensure that detainees reside in safe, humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.” He added that detained immigrants can file complaints about facilities or staff conduct by phone or through Homeland Security’s inspector general.

“Placing detainees in segregation requires careful consideration of alternatives, and administrative segregation placements for special vulnerability should be used only as a last resort,” he said, using the agency’s terminology for solitary confinement. “Segregation is never used as a method of retaliation.”

ICE issued directives in 2013 and 2015 to limit the use of solitary confinement, saying it should be a “last resort.”

But the use of isolation skyrocketed during the pandemic in 2020”under the pretext of medical isolation” according to Physicians for Human Rights. It fell again in 2021, but has been increasing since the middle of that year, throughout the Biden administration, according to the report. Solitary confinement placements in the third quarter of 2023 were 61 percent higher than in the third quarter of the previous year, according to ICE quarterly reports.

The average time spent in solitary confinement over the past five years was 27 days, almost double what the UN considers to constitute torture. More than 680 cases of isolation lasted at least three months, records show; 42 of them lasted more than a year.

The researchers’ work began more than six years ago when faculty at Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program began requesting documents from the Department of Homeland Security through the Freedom of Information Act. they eventually defendantobtaining some records through an order from a Federal District Court judge in Massachusetts.

Among the documents were copies of emails and follow-up reports exchanged between officials at ICE headquarters and records of facility inspections conducted by independent groups and the Homeland Security inspector general. Investigators also received a spreadsheet with data from the Segregation Review Management System, a database maintained by ICE headquarters staff members on solitary confinement cases at 125 facilities, including the rationale, dates, duration and location of each case.

Data analysts used Excel and Stata to calculate the average duration and total number of confinements, as well as to compare data between years and facilities.

ICE arrests and detains immigrants in facilities across the country run by private companies. Some of these people were convicted of serious crimes in the United States and turned over to immigration authorities once they finished serving their sentences; They remain in custody until they are deported. Others crossed the border illegally and, instead of being released into the country, are transferred to a detention center where they remain at least until the outcome of their deportation or asylum hearings.

Even for convicted criminals, the use of solitary confinement is controversial. Prolonged isolation has been linked to brain damage, hallucinations, heart palpitations, lack of sleep, reduced cognitive function, and increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Last week New York City ended the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails.

While civil custody is not intended to be punitive, government records show the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor crimes or as retaliation for bringing issues to light, such as filing complaints or participating in hunger strikes. An immigrant received 29 days of isolation for “using bad words”; two received 30 days for a “consensual kiss,” according to an email from Homeland Security.

Legal complaints and interviews with former detainees showed that humiliation was a common tactic used against those in solitary confinement. The immigrants detailed that they were vulgarly insulted, strip-searched, and the guards asked them to perform oral sex. One detainee said that when he asked for water, he was told to “drink water from the toilet.” Two of them described being filmed and photographed naked, one of them with his feet and hands tied and with at least five officials present.

The Times interviewed several people named in the report, who asked that their names and countries of origin not be identified out of fear for their safety since they had been deported.

A 40-year-old former detainee from West Africa who was in ICE custody for four years, including a month in solitary confinement, said guards had chosen the pre-dawn hours as his opportunity to leave his cell. isolation, when it was too early to contact his lawyer or his family by phone. He said they had also kept the fluorescent overhead lights on all night, which prevented him from sleeping.

Another, 39, a Muslim from Africa, said he had been denied halal meals for a month in solitary confinement. He said he had been beaten, kicked in the head and kept handcuffed even in the shower.

“It drives you crazy: you talk to the walls,” he said in an interview. “In the end you don’t know anything about the outside world, it’s like you’re dead.”

An asylum seeker from central Africa who spent three years in ICE custody, including a month in solitary confinement in Mississippi, said one of the most intense methods of psychological abuse was forcing immigrants to constantly wonder how long their isolation would last. He said a guard had told him it would last seven days, but then another seven and another passed. The guards laughed, he said.

“It was so stressful I can’t even say it,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at all. I thought about suicide every day; wanted to die”.

Detainees also reported extreme deficiencies and delays in medical care. More than half of those interviewed by researchers who had asked to see a doctor while in solitary confinement said they had waited a week or more to be seen, in cases including chest pain and head trauma. In one case, a detainee said he had to perform CPR on another inmate “while a guard stood there in shock.”

Steven Tendo was a pastor who had endured torture in his home country of Uganda, including being locked in an underground cell with a python and losing two fingers, bit by bit, to a wire cutter.

He came to the United States seeking asylum, but instead of finding freedom, ICE detained him for 26 months, including recurring periods in solitary confinement. He was denied medication for his diabetes and his health deteriorated, but he was unable to contact a lawyer, he said. They placed him in a full-body restraint device called “the wrap” for so long that he became soiled.

Mr. Tendo has since been released and lives in Vermont, where he is still seeking asylum.

“I would rather be physically tortured at home than go through the psychological pain here again,” Tendo said in an interview. “You wouldn’t think that a first world country that defends human rights would have such poison.”

Records show that the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the General Counsel of Homeland Security internally documented more than 60 complaints in the last four years in relation to people with serious mental health problems who were held in solitary confinement. In some cases, their conditions were the only reasons listed: One immigrant who showed “unusual body movements” and “irrational responses” was moved to solitary confinement for 28 days.

Nearly a quarter of people surveyed by researchers who had sought mental health care said they had never been seen; an additional 23 percent said they had been seen after more than a month. One person who experienced a dissociative episode was not seen for a psychological evaluation for five months, and the evaluations often lasted “maybe five minutes,” one said, conducted without privacy through the cell door.

“The serious consequences of placing vulnerable populations in solitary confinement are widely understood,” said Sabrineh Ardalan, director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, who contributed to the analysis. “That’s why the failure to follow their own directives is really surprising.”

Alvarez, the ICE spokesman, said the agency does not isolate detainees solely for mental illness unless directed to do so by medical staff members. He added that facility leaders and medical staff meet weekly to review cases of mentally ill people who are being held in solitary confinement.

The report’s authors recommended establishing a task force that would develop a plan to end the practice of solitary confinement in ICE facilities, present it to Congress, and then carry it out in its entirety within a year.

In the short term, they offered a number of other recommendations, including a formal justification for each use of confinement, more explicit standards for facilities and financial penalties for any prison contractor who did not meet them.

Because there is “much less oversight within the immigration detention environment” than in the criminal environment, said Tessa Wilson, senior asylum program officer at Physicians for Human Rights, the findings are intended to “remind ICE and the public In general, they should look and see what is happening.”