The Other Problem with ICE Detention: Solitary Confinement

Note: this op-ed was written by our client, Ellen Gallagher. It was originally published here

Many of us were distressed this month as the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched its largest worksite raid in a decade, arresting 680 workers and again separating children from their parents.

The administration’s apparent commitment to knowingly traumatizing children to deter immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border has been a growing source of civic and congressional outrage. But while Congress and the general public are rightly concerned about the human rights violations resulting from overcrowding at border facilities, DHS and ICE are also traumatizing migrants behind closed doors. This is occurring through a more insidious form of abuse — the use of prolonged solitary confinement, which the United Nations deems a form of torture. Tragically, this is what might await many of the workers arrested in the raids.

As a DHS whistleblower, I have spent years attempting to expose ICE’s repeated violations of statutory mandates and federal detention standards in its regular use of solitary confinement, particularly for mentally ill and medically vulnerable detainees. While employed in Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, I read hundreds of ICE’s segregation reports from dozens of detention facilities that revealed systemic abuse of detainees’ rights and a stunning disregard of the medical and mental-health harms posed by segregation.

For example, one detainee was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder with hallucinations and suicidal ideation, yet spent months in and out of solitary confinement before being sentenced to 390 more days for throwing his feces at a security guard. Another was sentenced to 45 days in “twenty-four-hour lockdown” because guards during a search of his cell found a single anti-anxiety pill, hidden in a book he was reading. Detainees on “suicide watch” were routinely placed in isolation without information as to the length of time they would remain there, whether or how frequently they would be monitored, or the medical treatment they would receive; other detainees were sentenced to periods from 15 to 45 days in disciplinary segregation for offenses including “insolence,” “spitting,” “possession of a cellphone,” “failure to follow an order,” “attempted horseplay” and “attempted fighting.”

Desperate to call attention to what rises to the level of torture of migrant populations, and in the face of muted responses from executive and legislative oversight entities, I agreed to go on the record with the press. In May, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in conjunction with the Intercept, NBC News and Univision, published the results of an extensive investigation on the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention. The investigation, which reviewed 8,488 recorded stays in solitary confinement from 2012 to early 2017, found isolation used “to punish immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing and to segregate hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees and people with disabilities.” Over half of all stays exceeded 15 days, a period the United Nations has deemed inhuman and degrading treatment.” This description is not surprising given the severe psychiatric harm associated with solitary confinement. (ICE told the journalism consortium that its use of solitary confinement “protects detainees, staff, contractors, and volunteers from harm” and that, on average, one-half of 1 percent of detainees were confined in solitary for more than 14 days last year.)

Although these abuses did occur under the Obama administration, the cruel and deliberate harm caused by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has prompted heightened congressional scrutiny into DHS practices, including ICE’s use of solitary confinement. These practices are especially concerning as the number of migrants in detention has exploded. Indeed, the Project on Government Oversight released a reportthis month that shows how the rapid increase in detained migrants is causing more harm. In reviewing more than 6,559 records it received through the Freedom of Information Act about conditions at ICE facilities between January 2016 and May 2018, the report notes that “as ICE detains more immigrants than ever before, detention centers have filed more reports of detainees being held in solitary confinement.” Those documents reveal that about 40 percent of the detainees placed in solitary confinement have mental illness; slightly more than 4,000 of the 6,559 records in the report show detainees confined for more than 15 days.

Until ICE’s systemic abuse of civil detainees is eliminated, individuals like those apprehended in Mississippi will foreseeably be at risk of becoming victims of torture. I applaud the recent class-action lawsuit filed by several public-interest organizations against ICE for its systematic denials of care for migrant detainees with medical and mental-health conditions, and misuse of solitary confinement. But DHS and Congress, fully aware of the nature and extent of ICE’s use of segregation, must act to enforce compliance with federal standards that mandate its use only as a last resort and in the most limited of circumstances. Failure to act in the face of overwhelming evidence of abuse amounts to the enabling of, if not complicity with, indefensible and deliberate harm. Every day we permit the inhumane treatment of migrants, we further diminish our own humanity.