Note: this article, written by our client Ellen Gallagher, was originally published here.

Untold Pain: Shedding Light on ICE’s Systemic Abuse of Civil Detainees

On Wednesday, August 7, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched its largest worksite raid in a decade, arresting 680 workers in seven Mississippi food-processing plants. As ICE shuttled parents in buses to a military hangar for paper processing, their children abruptly learned of their disappearance. Some were pictured pleading for their parents’ freedom.

If past is prologue, images from Mississippi should recall Postville, a predecessor ICE raid in Iowa, that cost taxpayers almost $10 million for the government to criminalize and brutalize largely ethnic Mayans working to support their families.

Those detained by ICE in Mississippi will likely end up in for-profit prisons run by the GEO Group or CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America)—though initially they may land in local jails. Since 2010, ICE has paid GEO and CoreCivic $2.2 billion and $879 million, respectively, as its go-to contractors housing immigration detainees.

Newly incarcerated immigrants, including single mothers, will also join the ranks of those forced to work for $1 a day, an ironic devolution from their prior employment status. Refusal to accept token wages may expose them to criminal prosecution or solitary confinement, according to plaintiffs in pending litigation against GEO and CoreCivic. This is true even though ICE detainees, now estimated at more than 52,000 per night, legally should be held in civil, not criminal, settings. The Supreme Court has affirmed that civil detention is inherently non-punitive, yet ICE lacks such a model.

This year, two reports established that a significant and increasing number of immigrant detainees have been and continue to be sentenced to periods in solitary confinement. In May, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the results of an extensive investigation which reviewed over 8,000 recorded stays in solitary confinement from 2012 to early 2017. The authors found that mentally ill and other vulnerable detainees from around the world suffered from anxiety, anger, depression and suicidal thoughts while locked for weeks or months in isolation.

Building on ICIJ’s reporting and the heightened Congressional scrutiny that followed it, on August 14, 2019, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report surveying over 6,500 records reflecting conditions between January 2016 through May 2018. Their investigation found that “even when 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.”

In both reports, over half of all recorded stays exceeded 15 days, a period the United Nations has deemed to be inhuman and degrading treatment.” This description is not surprising given the severe psychiatric harm associated with solitary confinement.

Rick Raemisch, a former corrections expert in Colorado, has pointedly challenged ICE’s approach:

With all my years in the criminal justice system, when you look at locking someone up for long periods of time in a cell the size of a parking space: It’s immoral. It’s unethical. It’s torture. And we’re both multiplying and manufacturing mental illness when we’re doing that. I’m absolutely convinced of that.   

As a DHS whistleblower, I have spent years reporting to executive and legislative oversight authorities ICE’s severe and recurring violations of statutory mandates and federal detention standards. Some of the more egregious fact patterns featured in my disclosures include:

  • A detainee diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder with hallucinations and suicidal ideation, who spent months in and out of solitary confinement before being sentenced to 390 more days for throwing his own feces at a security guard;
  • A detainee sentenced to 45 days in “twenty-four-hour lockdown” because guards during a search of his cell found one anti-anxiety pill hidden inside a book he was reading;
  • A mentally ill detainee “found guilty of possession of an unauthorized item”—a green pepper “hidden” in his sock and sentenced to 15 days in disciplinary segregation;
  • A mentally ill detainee placed in disciplinary segregation pending investigation because he “admitted blowing kisses to [the] GEO officer posted in [the] dormitory;” another detainee received 14 days in disciplinary segregation for engaging in a consensual kiss;
  • Detainees on “suicide watch” routinely placed in isolation without information as to the length of time they were assigned to remain there, the frequency with which they would be monitored or the medical treatment they would receive;
  • Detainees sentenced to periods from 15 to 45 days in disciplinary segregation for “offenses” such as “insolence,” “spitting,” “participation in a hunger strike,” “failure to follow an order,” “attempted horseplay” and “attempted fighting”; and
  • Sample 30-day reports from a regional jail that showed mentally ill immigration detainees naked in deplorable conditions and denied reentry to the general population until they agreed to maintain “proper hygiene.”

Until ICE’s systemic abuse of civil detainees is exposed and eliminated, individuals like those apprehended in Mississippi will join this tragic procession of pain and suffering.

Once buried in isolation for 22-24 hours a day, they will find few lifelines back to their family, friends and community. Nor will they find it easy to access counsel or navigate protracted immigration court proceedings to seek relief from removal.

Instead, they will struggle to survive gratuitously cruel and soul-crushing stints in solitary confinement, some having already suffered the trauma of being separated from their children.

As perhaps their last lesson in America, they will simultaneously learn just how far we as a Nation have veered from the centuries-old promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

As thousands of civil immigration detainees continue to be ‘sentenced’ to solitary confinement where they are denied proper medical care and attention, each of us face a fundamental question: Will we permit through inaction, or dedicate our efforts to halt ongoing violations of law and policy?

I believe the choice to act is also a decision to save lives.