As Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains more immigrants than ever before, detention centers have filed more reports of detainees being held in solitary confinement, according to federal records obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). In solitary, detainees are locked in a cell and isolated from other people for up to 23 hours a day.
The records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, cover the last year of the Obama administration and the Trump administration through early May 2018. There are 6,559 records, each of which represents the confinement of a detainee in solitary (ICE has placed some detainees in solitary more than once). These records advance reporting on ICE’s use of solitary by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and partner news organizations published earlier this year. The records POGO obtained are the first to cover a significant portion of the current administration.
About 40 percent of the records show detainees placed in solitary have mental illness. At some detention centers, the percentage is much higher.
Many experts view solitary confinement as tantamount to torture under certain conditions, especially if it is prolonged. Prolonged solitary confinement has been defined as longer than 15 days.
Slightly more than 4,000 of the 6,559 records show detainees in solitary for more than 15 days. One quarter of those roughly 4,000 records indicate the detainees in solitary had mental illness. The records show that some detainees were held in solitary for months, and in some cases, for more than a year. One detainee was held in solitary for more than two years.
Viewed alongside official watchdog reports and insider accounts, these records depict an immigration detention system in urgent need of more oversight. Indeed, an ICE policy instituted six years ago mandated the creation of these records so the agency could assess how its 200-plus detention centers use and misuse solitary, officially known as “segregation.” But the records themselves have gaps and inaccuracies, hindering their potential to help overseers.
The problem has garnered bipartisan Congressional scrutiny. “It is imperative that ICE swiftly resolve any lacking oversight or improper documentation pertaining to the use of segregation,” wrote Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in a letter last month to the acting head of ICE. This isn’t Grassley’s first time weighing in on ICE’s use of solitary. In 2015, he and then-Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) wrote that information they obtained suggested “that ICE continues to place many detainees with mental health concerns in administrative or disciplinary segregation—also known as solitary confinement—contrary to agency directives.”
The release of this data on solitary comes as the current administration has aggressively enforced immigration laws, including the mass prosecution of people for first-time illegal entry into the U.S., a misdemeanor, under a “zero tolerance” policy carried out along the entire U.S.-Mexico border beginning in April 2018 (the last full month covered by the data). The administration has also ramped up so-called “interior enforcement” where immigrants, and some U.S. citizens, have been arrested away from the border and ports of entry. The aggressive enforcement has sent the number of people in ICE detention to record highs in recent months, including a growing number of detainees with mental illness.
ICE detention centers across the country use solitary confinement to house detainees with mental illness and other vulnerabilities apart from the general population. Solitary is also used to punish detainees who assault employees or other detainees, and for violating other rules. Some detainees allege they have been placed in solitary as retaliation for speaking out against forced labor, sexual assault, or other alleged abuses.
ICE provided no comment in response to POGO’s queries.
Even when it’s meant to protect rather than punish, placing individuals with preexisting mental illness in solitary confinement can make the psychological issues they are grappling with worse and can increase the risk they will die by suicide.
“There’s no debate that for people with a mental illness, it’s very clear that solitary exacerbates the mental illness,” psychiatrist Terry Kupers told POGO. Kupers has testified in lawsuits involving mental health care in prisons. Among those who were not previously experiencing mental illness, time in solitary can also lead to mental health problems and a rise in suicidal thoughts.
During the first two years of the Trump administration, at least three ICE detainees who were documented as having schizophrenia and were placed in solitary took their own lives, according to two official detainee death reviews by ICE and an inquiry by a state law enforcement agency in Georgia. Placing those with mental illness in solitary confinement is akin to “putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe,” according to one federal judge.
According to a 2015 study by experts at New York University’s medical school, suicide was one of the top causes of death in ICE detention between 2003 and 2015. The study cites criticism of ICE for putting “patients with mental illness into detention instead of allowing them to receive community-based treatment.”
Yet there is at least one less policy limit on detaining people with mental illness now than when that study came out. A month after President Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded a 2014 memo that stated ICE should not detain people “suffering from serious physical or mental illness” unless there were “extraordinary circumstances or the requirement of mandatory detention.”
Opponents of solitary confinement have questioned whether its use for long periods of time violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In one case, a federal judge wrote that placing those with mental illness in solitary confinement is akin to “putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.” The discussion of solitary has predominantly been in the context of prison—a punishment for those found guilty of a crime. Because immigrant detention, unlike prison, is not officially meant to be punitive, prolonged use of solitary may pose additional legal and constitutional concerns.
The ICE data obtained by POGO shows some detainees were kept in solitary for long periods, in nine cases exceeding a year.
This article is republished in conjunction with the Project on Government Oversight please continue here.