[Pnews] Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention Is a Grim Reality—and Only Likely to Get Worse

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jul 30 12:14:35 EDT 2019


  Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention Is a Grim Reality—and
  Only Likely to Get Worse

By Abram Wolfe <https://solitarywatch.org/author/abram-wolfe/> | July 
30, 2019

Last month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists 
(ICIJ), in conjunction with The Intercept, NBC News, and Univision, 
published the results of an extensive investigation 
<https://www.icij.org/investigations/solitary-voices/>into the use of 
solitary confinement in American immigration detention facilities. The 
report, which reviewed 8,488 recorded stays in solitary confinement 
between 2012 and early 2017, found that solitary was used “to punish 
immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing and to segregate 
hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees and people with disabilities.” More 
than half of all solitary stays covered in the report lasted longer than 
15 days.

Nearly one-third of the stints in solitary involved someone with a 
mental illness, and 373 involved someone on suicide watch, resulting in 
“a revolving door between solitary confinement and medical isolation 
cells for people deemed at high risk of trying to hurt themselves.” This 
“revolving door” is reminiscent of the cycle of solitary confinement 
<https://solitarywatch.org/2019/06/11/how-solitary-confinement-can-lead-to-a-life-sentence-in-prison/> for 
people with mental illness that exists within prisons and jails 
throughout the United States.

At a time when Trump’s brutal policies have drawn attention to 
conditions in immigration detention, these alarming findings help 
confirm what advocates have long suspected, and amplify what 
incarcerated immigrants have long experienced: Solitary confinement is 
overused and abused by immigration authorities, and the unique position 
of migrants in detention can render them especially powerless to resist 
or endure their torturous conditions.

***Growth of Immigrant Incarceration*

The solitary confinement of immigrants, of course, would not exist 
without their incarceration. And although immigration laws and 
deportation have always been a reality in the United States, the arrest 
and detention of immigrants during deportation proceedings is a 
contemporary phenomenon. From America’s founding through the 1880s, the 
fledgling nation operated with an open borders doctrine. Even after the 
United States began to set limits on the swell of newcomers, including 
the strict (and racist) quotas established by the Immigration Act of 
1924, the detention of migrants was never “a significant or even active 
component of immigration enforcement,” writes immigrant rights attorney 
<https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2900391>and legal 
scholar Anita Sinha.

But in 2002, as a response to the attacks on September 11, 2001, 
Congress passed legislation consolidating previously disparate 
immigration functions into one agency, the Department of Homeland 
Security (DHS). At the urging of both private prison companies and the 
new Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) unit of the DHS, Congress 
quietly began adding immigration detention bed quotas 
<https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/issues/detention-quotas>into its 
annual budgets, guaranteeing that a minimum mandatory number of beds 
would be maintained exclusively for those undergoing immigration 
proceedings. Meanwhile, just as the federal government began preparing a 
vast infrastructure for immigration detention, the criminal prosecution 
of immigration offenses ballooned 
creating a robust pipeline meant to shuttle individuals through a 
process of arrest, possible deportation, and, in the meantime, 
indefinite incarceration.

While statistics on immigration detention before 9/11 are scarce, one 
government report 
that in 1995, the U.S. immigration system incarcerated an average of 
fewer than 7,500 people. Immigration detention nearly quadrupled over 
the following two decades: According to DHS’s annual budget 
ICE facilities held, on average, 28,449 individuals by 2015. This far 
outpaced the rate of growth of non-immigration-related incarceration, 
which went up 37 percent 
<https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=kfdetail&iid=487>over the same period. 
And while U.S. prison and jail populations have leveled out and declined 
since about 2008, immigration-related incarceration only continues to 
rise: According to the same DHS budget report, by the end of 2018, ICE 
held a daily average of 42,188 people in detention facilities spread 
across all 50 states, throughout local jails, and in holding facilities 
on the border. DHS projects that by the end of 2020, that average will 
swell to 54,000. Those estimations are likely to be met, if not 
exceeded, given Trump’s recent call to deport “millions” 
within immigrant communities.

Every one of these tens of thousands in ICE custody is civilly, not 
criminally, detained <https://www.ice.gov/detention-management>. 
According to its own policies, ICE’s detention network exists solely to 
hold individuals for “custodial supervision,” meaning ICE’s carceral 
practices serve a strictly logistical role. In no manner does the law 
instruct ICE or DHS to carry out punishment against people for any 
crimes. In practice, however, the detention of American immigrants 
increasingly resembles the punitive incarceration of America’s convicted 
prison population, including forced work practices 
heavily restrictive living environments 
and of course, solitary confinement.

Like most prison systems, ICE does not officially recognize its own use 
of solitary confinement, nor do the private companies like CoreCivic 
run many of its detention facilities. Instead, official ICE detention 
use of what it calls Special Management Units (SMUs), in which 
individuals can be placed under one of two pretexts. The first, 
Administrative Segregation, is purportedly “nonpunitive,” and is 
“required only to ensure the safety of detainees or others, the 
protection of property, or the security or good order of the facility.” 
The second, Disciplinary Segregation—which in theory requires a review 
and hearings by the Institutional Disciplinary Panel—is imposed for rule 
violations ranging from homicide and inciting a riot, to “horseplay,” 
engaging in sexual acts, refusing to work, or displaying insolence 
towards staff. Despite these purported differences, the two types of 
segregation often involve identical cells and living conditions.

Navigating the world of solitary confinement in ICE facilities is made 
further complicated by the fact that different facilities operate under 
different detention standards, as demonstrated by ICE data from 2015 
This can mean that what is treated as benign in one facility might land, 
or keep, an individual in solitary in another.

“The lack of the uniformity in the standards is a real serious problem 
in ensuring that people are treated humanely, that there are clear 
standards, that conditions are adequately monitored, and that the 
standards are enforced in an appropriate way,” Victoria López, a senior 
staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project who specializes in 
immigration detention, told Solitary Watch.  “In the last ten to fifteen 
years, with this massive growth of the immigration detention system, 
what we’ve seen is that ICE has been able to patch together different 
kinds of contracts with local governments and private prison companies, 
utilizing varying sets of standards depending on, frankly, what seems 
most convenient to the jail or the prison operation and not really 
consistent with how people should be treated.”

In 2013, a time when scrutiny and criticism of solitary confinement was 
growing in the United States, ICE attempted to modernize its solitary 
practices through a wide-reaching directive 
Intended to improve “the safety, health, and welfare of detainees in 
segregated housing,” the directive required lengthy, meticulous 
documentation before anyone could be placed in restrictive housing. 
However, López explained that the reforms set up only “very basic 
limitations” that “raise their own red flags.” A scathing internal 
late last year showed that these reforms were aspirational at best, with 
many ICE facilities in violation of them. Among other violations, the 
report alleged that one man was put in extended solitary confinement for 
“sharing coffee with another detainee.”

***Suffering and Dying in Solitary*

Other than that internal report, there exist almost no publicly 
available government reports regarding the solitary confinement of 
people in ICE custody. It has largely been left to advocacy 
organizations and investigative news outlets like ICIJ to uncover the 
reality of life inside American immigration detention facilities. This 
task is made difficult by the scarcity of reliable information, and the 
thick regulations surrounding any sort of data gathering. The recent 
ICIJ report recognizes that its dataset was limited by ICE restrictions, 
allowing for analysis of only the “portion of all isolation stays in ICE 
facilities” that ICE chose to make public.

What has resulted, says the National Immigrant Justice Center 
which was the first to produce a report on the subject in 2012, is a 
climate in which “advocates have very little information regarding the 
use of segregation in detention facilities. Most of what is known about 
segregation in these facilities comes from anecdotal reports from 
current and former detainees and the attorneys and advocates who work in 
detention centers.” Those anecdotal reports are critical, growing in 
number, and paint a dire picture of the state of solitary confinement in 
American immigration detention facilities.

Tiombe Kimana Carlos was 34 when she committed suicide after spending 
two and a half years in York County Prison (YCP) in Pennsylvania, which 
holds both pre-trial detained immigrants and American citizens convicted 
of criminal offenses. According to a 2017 report from Human Rights Watch 
Carlos spent a cumulative nine months of that time in solitary, 
including the last 78 days of her life. She was described by her lawyer 
“sweet and gentle, but also gregarious and fun to be around,” and had 
persistent mental health issues present from an early age. Her death 
report <https://www.ice.gov/doclib/foia/reports/ddr-carlos.pdf>explains 
that “disruptive behavior on the bus that transported her to YCP” led 
officers to place her immediately into a behavior-based Administrative 
Segregation unit, despite the fact that “an administrative segregation 
order was not completed for or issued to Carlos.” For the following two 
and a half years, she filed grievances that went unacknowledged, 
attempted suicide five times, and received little mental health 
treatment. Before her final stretch in solitary, her lawyer said, “She 
was telling her fellow inmates that she couldn’t take it anymore. Then, 
at one point, she gave away her stuff and she says, ‘I’m going to go.’”

The small number of internal ICE death reports that are publicly 
available through FOIA (34 in all, found here 
<https://www.ice.gov/foia/library#wcm-survey-target-id>under the tab 
“Reports”) show a high prevalence of both prolonged solitary confinement 
and suicide, often in combination. Similar patterns can be found in 
recent reporting 
journalists and advocates 
deaths in immigration detention.

At Stewart Detention Center, for example, JeanCarlo Jimenez Joseph 
hanged himself 
2017 after being placed in solitary confinement, reportedly as 
punishment for an earlier suicide attempt. The Georgia Bureau of 
Investigation found that 
Joseph, who had a history of schizophrenia, had “repeatedly displayed 
suicidal behavior, but never got the mental health care he needed. He 
was also placed in an isolation cell that contained a known suicide 
hazard, a ceiling sprinkler head, upon which he affixed his makeshift 
noose.” CoreCivic seems to have learned little from his death in its 
custody: Just a year later, Efraín Romero de la Rosa, who had been 
diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, killed himself 
three weeks in solitary confinement at Stewart.

At least one suicide in solitary can be directly linked to Donald 
Trump’s family separation policy: In May of 2018, Marco Antonio Muñoz 
“lost his shit,” as one Border Patrol Agent described it 
when agents forcibly took his three-year-old son from his arms. When the 
distraught Muñoz “yelled and kicked” while in custody, he was taken to a 
local jail and placed in a padded isolation cell, where he was found 
dead the next morning with “a piece of clothing twisted around his neck.”

Those who survive solitary confinement in detention recall confusion, 
horror, and a sense of existential helplessness. “It was like somebody 
was choking me,” 50-year-old Ayo Oyakhire recounted to Splinter 
Oyakhire described the apathy of facility staff in response to his 
distress during his 45-day stay in solitary: “Take your medicine, go 
back to sleep,” they reportedly told him.

Even immigrant children who arrive in the United States as unaccompanied 
minors are sometimes subjected to solitary confinement. A recent lawsuit 
on behalf of immigrant teens with “mental health and behavioral issues” 
who were held at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia relays 
stories of children held in prolonged isolation in small cells, and 
strapped to restraint chairs in their underwear with bags over their 
heads. In response, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice reviewed 
the practices 
Shenandoah Valley, ultimately finding that “no abuse or neglect had 
taken place.” Governor Ralph Northam praised the report 
“quick and comprehensive.” The lawsuit is still pending 

***Invisible Spaces and Invisible Lives*

Solitary confinement in the criminal justice system is a hidden world. 
In the system that incarcerates immigrants, it is more opaque still, due 
in part to a high level of privatization. In 2015, 62 percent of all 
immigration detention beds 
operated by private companies under contract with ICE, compared with 8 
percent of the beds in criminal prisons and jails 
according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This arrangement places a staggering proportion of detained immigrants 
in an especially dangerous climate. When it comes to conditions of 
confinement, including the use of solitary confinement, private 
facilities are permitted to bypass many of the already meager standards 
for documentation, transparency, and accountability required of public 

For example, because courts have found that “documents created and 
maintained by a private entity are not ‘agency records’ subject to 
FOIA’s disclosure requirements…Prison documents related to confinement 
conditions can be kept from the public simply by not handing them over 
to DHS officials,” writes law professor César Chuauhtémoc García 
Hernández <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2458648>. 
These loopholes create what he has called “invisible spaces and 
invisible lives in immigration detention.” The bureaucratic confusion 
and chaos created by having some detained immigrants housed in local 
jails and state and federal prisons only adds to the invisibility.

ICE’s inability to adequately oversee detention operations in county 
jails and private prisons can result in the grave overuse of solitary 
confinement, Victoria López explained to Solitary Watch. As 
non-citizens, and often non-English-speakers, living under constant 
threat of deportation to countries where their lives may be at risk, 
detained immigrants are unentitled or unable to legally challenge their 
conditions, including their placement in isolation. As the NIJC report 
“guards have unfettered power over immigrants, who have no legal 
recourse for unfair custody decisions,” and who have little ability to 
make their cases known to the outside world.

Not even twenty years ago, the situation our country finds itself in 
today would have been unthinkable. The incarceration of detained 
immigrant populations was relatively rare, and the solitary confinement 
of those populations even more so. Today, however, members of the 
public, reporters, and even legislators 
<https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/06/21/legislators-were-turned-away-from-ice-detention-centers-the-administration-has-the-right-to-do-that/?utm_term=.64a18ddc259b> wanting 
to exert oversightare often denied access to ICE facilities. ICE’s 
increasing secrecy coincides with dangerous overcrowding 
detention facilities. Such overcrowding, as we know from the American 
prison system, will invariably lead to deteriorating prison conditions, 
internal disorder and, of course, an increased dependence on solitary 
confinement. And yet ICE continues to evade any meaningful oversight 
drawing a tight curtain around internal conditions of inhumane confinement.

The dizzying rush to lock up more and more immigrants of all ages and 
circumstances in increasingly punitive conditions has been further 
fueled by the hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the Trump 
era, leaving tens of thousands of vulnerable men, women, and especially 
increasingly dire positions. Using solitary confinement as a tool for 
coercion and intimidation only inflames these traumas, turning an 
inherently administrative process into a punitive, dangerous environment 
where people are locked alone in cells in a strange country, devoid of 
information, help, or hope.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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