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Use of Solitary Confinement on the Rise in ICE Facilities

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Biden Administration’s rhetoric on justice and human rights issues may sound good, but a new report reveals that the use of solitary confinement—which is often in conditions the United Nations (“U.N.”) has declared amount to torture—is actually increasing in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) facilities. The report is a collaboration between the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School, and Physicians for Human Rights.

The report classified “solitary confinement” as “isolation without meaningful human interaction for 22 hours a day or more” and noted that the average of time spent in such isolation “was 27 days … stretching well beyond the 15-day period that meets the threshold for inhuman and degrading treatment defined by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture.”

Interviews with detainees described conditions commonly portrayed in Cold War movies, where cells “were freezing cold; constantly lit, causing sleep deprivation; or had toilets only guards could flush.”

“The light is on 24 hours a day… the guards wouldn’t dim or turn them off at times,” said one 30-year-old female detainee. “We went crazy.” The report noted that ICE recorded “more than 14,000 solitary confinement cases from 2018 to 2023,” with “an estimated 3,000 immigrant detainees held in isolation” in 2023.

The agency’s policies “acknowledge[] that isolating detainees—who aren’t considered prisoners and aren’t held for punitive reasons under federal law—is ‘a serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives.’” Yet, solitary seems to be the default response to any deviation from population norms.

A 2019 investigation published by The Intercept and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that “solitary confinement was used to punish some detainees for offenses as minor as consensual kissing or giving haircuts to each other.” The agency also has a record of segregating “hunger strikers, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities.”

The new report focused more on ICE’s use of solitary confinement for “medical isolation” of detainees who are sick, disabled, or experiencing a mental health crisis. “Every ICE detention center has a relationship with a local hospital, so there’s always a better option than solitary confinement,” said Katherine Peeler, a co-author of the report who said ICE should be sending more detainees to outside medical facilities. “The conflation of medical isolation and solitary confinement is inappropriate and inhumane.”

The 2019 report had also identified “at least 373 instances of detainees being placed in isolation due to suicide risk—and another 200 plus cases of people already in solitary confinement being moved to ‘suicide watch’ or other forms of observation, often in altered solitary cells.”

“This is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire,” said Kenneth Applebaum, a professor emeritus of psychiatry who has reviewed ICE’s segregation practices as a consultant for the Department of Homeland Security.

The new report noted that, since 2019, “the number of detainees with recorded mental health conditions placed in solitary confinement jumped from 35 percent to 56 percent in 2023.” The researchers also said that this situation is likely worse than ICE documents show, “due to ICE’s poor record-keeping.”

Candidate Biden’s website included a pledge to end the use of solitary confinement, with “very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person.” Yet, his administration allows this practice, despite knowing it “can cause extreme psychological and emotional distress, and lead to sleeplessness, chronic depression, hallucinations, self-harm, and suicidal impulses.”

“This is a sheer failure of the Biden administration to stop egregious human rights abuses,” said Tessa Wilson, a senior program officer for Physicians for Human Rights and a coauthor of the report. “The use of solitary confinement is actually only increasing.”  



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