[Pnews] Thousands of Immigrants Suffer in Solitary Confinement in ICE Detention
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue May 21 11:46:57 EDT 2019
Thousands of Immigrants Suffer in Solitary Confinement in ICE Detention
Spencer Woodman <https://theintercept.com/staff/spencer-woodman/>,
Maryam Saleh <https://theintercept.com/staff/maryamsaleh/>, Hannah
Rappleye <https://theintercept.com/staff/hannah-rappleye/>, Karrie Kehoe
<https://theintercept.com/staff/karrie-kehoe/>- May 20 2019
The Intercept’s and ICIJ’s reporting, which included a groundbreaking
review of more than 8,400 reports describing placements of ICE detainees
in solitary confinement
found that the immigration agency has used isolation cells to punish
immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing, and to segregate
hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees, and people with disabilities.
In nearly a third of the cases, detainees were described as having a
mental illness, which made them especially vulnerable to breakdown if
locked up alone in a small cell. Records reviewed by ICIJ describe
detainees in isolation mutilating their genitals, gouging their eyes,
cutting their wrists, and smearing their cells with feces.
The review found that immigrants held in the agency’s isolation cells
had suffered hallucinations, fits of anger, and suicidal impulses.
Former detainees told ICIJ that they experienced sleeplessness,
flashbacks, depression, and memory loss long after release.
“People were being brutalized,” said Ellen Gallagher, who currently
holds a supervisory role in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Gallagher has tried for years to sound the alarm within her agency about
a wide range of abusive uses of solitary confinement at ICE detention
Gallagher, a whistleblower who is going public for the first time, told
The Intercept and ICIJ that ICE, a DHS agency, has violated policies
that often require a search for less restrictive measures before people
are placed in prolonged solitary confinement. She said she has never
been so deeply disturbed by a professional matter. “I lost sleep. I
cried,” she said.
ICIJ’s investigation was conducted over five months in collaboration
with Grupo SIN in the Dominican Republic; Plaza Pública in Guatemala;
Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción in Mexico; and The Intercept, NBC News,
and Univision in the U.S.
It comes in the midst of unprecedented public scrutiny of the way that
U.S. authorities arrest and detain asylum-seekers and other immigrants.
President Donald Trump’s tough stance has caused the population of ICE
detention centers to swell, with more immigrants waiting behind bars as
their cases languish in heavily backlogged immigration courts — though
the routine use of solitary confinement long predates Trump’s presidency.
ICIJ’s investigation included interviews with dozens of detainees, and
the review of thousands of pages of audits and other documents. The
incident reports reviewed by ICIJ describe placements of detainees in
solitary confinement from 2012 to early 2017 — adding up to millions of
hours of isolation.
ICIJ obtained the incident reports through a public records request that
asked for logs detailing placements of detainees in solitary
confinement. The records cover only a portion of all isolation stays in
ICE said it does not keep records of every solitary confinement
placement. Instead, it tracks only cases in which detainees were held in
isolation for more than 14 days, and when immigrants with a “special
vulnerability” were placed in isolation. This latter category includes
detainees who have a mental illness, have been victims of abuse, or
would be at risk in a facility’s general population due to their sexual
orientation or gender identity.
The data generally reflects overall migration trends; more than half of
the detainees in the data set are from just four countries: Mexico, El
Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
In a statement, ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said the agency’s
policy on segregation — the ICE term for isolation — “protects
detainees, staff, contractors, and volunteers from harm.” On average,
half a percent of ICE’s population was held in solitary for 14 days or
more in 2018, she said.
Explore the data from more than 8,400 reports describing placements of
ICE detainees in solitary confinement.
“Gasoline on a Fire”
Some detainees spent weeks or months in isolation.
More than half of the 8,488 incident reports ICIJ reviewed described
stays in solitary confinement that lasted longer than 15 days. ICIJ
identified 187 cases in which a detainee was held for more than six
months. In 32 of those cases, the detainee was confined in solitary for
a year or more.
An NBC News review of ICE detainee death reports found that at least 13
detainees who died in ICE custody had spent time in solitary, in some
cases up to the time of death. In eight of those deaths, ICE later
determined that rules for putting detainees in isolation and procedures
for caring for them were not followed, according to agency documents.
ICIJ’s analysis found at least 373 instances of detainees being placed
in isolation because they were potentially suicidal — and another
200-plus cases of people already in solitary confinement moved to
“suicide watch” or another form of observation, in many cases in another
“This is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire,” Kenneth
Appelbaum, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School who has examined ICE’s segregation
practices as a DHS consultant, said of using solitary confinement to
manage suicidal detainees. “This is a practice that exposes detainees to
real psychological and physiological harm.”
Citing nondisclosure agreements with the agency, Appelbaum declined to
comment specifically on what he saw at ICE.
Some ICE detention centers — such as Adelanto Detention Facility in
California, run by the GEO Group, and Stewart Detention Center in
Georgia, run by CoreCivic — reported placing hundreds of detainees in
isolation. Both facilities are the subject of class-action lawsuits by
former detainees alleging that the two private contractors used solitary
confinement to force immigrant detainees to work
for as little as $1 a day.
In response to questions from ICIJ, both the GEO Group and CoreCivic
said their work programs are strictly voluntary.
Other detention centers appear to use isolation rarely, though there is
no way to tell whether a facility is misreporting or underreporting
incidents. (One of ICE’s government watchdogs, the DHS Office of
Inspector General, has found significant problems with the
underreporting of solitary confinement data).
The records show dozens of cases of detainees placed in solitary
confinement solely due to a disability, many simply because they needed
a wheelchair, cane, crutches, or some other aid. One detainee from
Guatemala was put in isolation for more than two months only because he
had a prosthetic leg. A Nicaraguan man was put in solitary for almost
two months — the only listed reason: “Detainee utilizes crutches —
“Sometimes I feel like someone is choking me. I have flashbacks,
like I’m still confined in that little room.”
The logs also include 182 descriptions of detainees being isolated for
going on hunger strike, a form of protest that advocates argue is
protected under the First Amendment.
“It was mental torture, nothing else,” said Karandeep Singh, a
29-year-old Sikh from the state of Punjab in northern India who was
moved to solitary confinement in the El Paso Processing Center, in
Texas, after he refused meals to protest his impending deportation.
Singh said that after more than two weeks in solitary, he bashed his
head into his cell wall in an attempt to kill himself.
Even months after being released from isolation, Singh and other former
detainees said they couldn’t move past the experience.
“After that first or second week, I lost my mind,” said Ayo Oyakhire, a
52-year-old Nigerian, of his nearly seven weeks in isolation at the ICE
unit in Atlanta’s jail. “Sometimes I feel like someone is choking me. I
have flashbacks, like I’m still confined in that little room.”
A Global Outlier
The origins of solitary confinement date back to European dungeons in
the Middle Ages, but the practice was not institutionalized until the
rise of the modern penitentiary in the early 19th century. For jailers
trying to manage unruly or dangerous prisoners, isolation cells proved a
useful tool: Lock them inside an armored box where they can disturb no
one but themselves.
Beginning with a raft of tough-on-crime laws in the 1970s, the use of
solitary confinement surged in the U.S., along with a major boom in its
prison population. In 2016, Amy Fettig, head of the American Civil
Liberties Union’s Stop Solitary campaign, wrote that the use of solitary
confinement in America “is a global outlier and human rights crisis.”
Most of the attention paid to solitary confinement has focused on
prisons. Its use in immigration detention centers has drawn far less notice.
In 1993, at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a handful of U.S.
detention centers held a few thousand immigrant detainees on any given
day. Clinton signed into law new requirements that mandated detention of
many immigrants who had served prison time and tripled the size of the
By the time Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, civil detention of
noncitizens had become mainstream in U.S. incarceration, with large,
private-sector prison companies competing for multimillion-dollar
federal contracts to help detain tens of thousands of immigrants. A
network of new facilities sprawled across dozens of states, many
operated by private contractors or situated within county jails.
In February 2014, Gallagher, the whistleblower, who was then a policy
adviser for Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office,
came across ICE logs detailing the placement of detainees in solitary
confinement. At first, she couldn’t believe her eyes: The agency was
using the punishing conditions of isolation on civil detainees routinely
and often with little apparent justification.
Her alarm grew as she gathered more documentation and reviewed cases of
ICE detention centers placing mentally ill immigrants in isolation for
attempting suicide and for being the victim of a physical attack. One
detainee was placed in isolation for the unauthorized possession of a
Over several months, Gallagher tracked individual cases and gathered
reams of documentation. Coming to believe that ICE was violating its own
rules and endangering the lives of detainees, she embarked on a
yearslong effort to reform the agency’s practices.
In a succession of whistleblower memos first circulated internally at
DHS and then sent to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — an independent
agency where federal employees can file complaints of wrongdoing they
think have been ignored — Gallagher alleged that abuses of solitary
confinement at ICE had become “urgent and at times life-threatening,”
and that the practices contributed to an “ongoing abuse of authority and
create a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”
ICE’s internal guidelines explicitly require detention officials to
document what alternatives to isolation were considered in certain
cases. Gallagher often found no evidence that ICE had actually done this.
While a breach of ICE’s directive, by itself, would not amount to a
legal violation, departing from agency rules can still be highly
significant, said Lucas Guttentag, a professor of law at Stanford
University. “The directive is effectively internal agency law that every
employee and manager must follow with care and fidelity,” Guttentag
said. “Directives are critical to governing an agency effectively.”
In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said that its Office
for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties had examined ICE’s use of isolation
through complaint investigations, working groups, and other advice and
feedback. The office has worked with ICE “to improve policy and reduce
unnecessary use of segregated housing for ICE detainees,” the
spokesperson said. The office said that, in 2016, it collaborated with
ICE to implement Obama-era recommendations issued by the Justice
Department on improving solitary confinement.
DHS’s Office of Inspector General, which Gallagher also communicated
with during her whistleblowing — and where she now works as a director
in the Office of Integrity and Quality Oversight — pointed to several
it had conducted of ICE facilities since 2016, including one
report that focused specifically on the use of segregation and
recommended better data-collection practices.
Perhaps the most meaningful step taken in response to Gallagher’s
whistleblowing was a previously unreported letter sent in June 2015 by
the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chair at the time, Sen. Charles
Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and a Democrat on the panel, then-Sen. Al
Franken of Minnesota. The letter was addressed to Jeh Johnson, who was
the Homeland Security secretary.
“Recent information obtained by the Committee,” the senators wrote,
“suggests 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 that limit the use
of segregation for the mentally ill.”
Believing that she has exhausted her options for whistleblowing within
the government, Gallagher agreed to share her story. Without public
action, “this same set of circumstances will not stop,” she said. “And I
think it will actually get worse.”
The Suicide Room
Dulce Rivera has led a troubled life. Although her birthplace is
unknown, her earliest memories are of the streets of San Pedro Sula in
Honduras. She said her mother, a sex worker, abandoned her to fend for
herself at age 10. Rivera said she suffered abuse on the streets and
began using drugs at an early age. Fleeing destitution in Central
America, she arrived in the U.S. when she was 16 and was later granted
In 2013, she was convicted in Santa Barbara, California, of robbery in
the second degree, an aggravated felony, according to immigration court
filings. She spent the next four years in prison before being
transferred to ICE custody.
ICE maintains that while detained in New Mexico, Rivera harassed other
detainees, an allegation she denies.
After the suicide attempt, Rivera was put in a new solitary confinement
cell that was much like her first, but this time, she was stripped and
given a heavy, green smock that couldn’t be torn or otherwise fashioned
into an instrument of self-harm.
She was still locked alone almost all of the time in conditions that
caused her mind to fester. “They take off all your clothes and they put
you in a cell that is more terrible,” Rivera said.
“Due to housing limitations at various facilities, segregation use
for suicide observation is a necessity.”
ICIJ found that there is often a revolving door between solitary
confinement and medical isolation cells for people deemed at high risk
of trying to hurt themselves. Like Rivera, Karandeep Singh, the Indian
hunger striker, was also moved again to isolation after he tried to kill
himself. He said he remained in what he called the “suicide room” for 24
hours in handcuffs and was then placed in a smock, like Rivera.
In one memo, Gallagher described seeing records of ICE detainees moving
“chronically back and forth from the general population to
administrative or disciplinary segregation, with periodic,
crisis-oriented admissions to psychiatric hospitals punctuating their
return to the same disturbing cycle.”
The records ICIJ reviewed contain numerous examples. In Michigan’s
Calhoun County, after an Iraqi detainee was admitted to a hospital for
cutting himself with a razor, detention officials placed him in suicide
watch and then charged him with “a weapons offense and self mutilation,”
sentencing him to 30 additional days in isolation, otherwise known as
Special Housing Unit, or SHU, as punishment.
In the agency’s response, Bennett, the ICE spokesperson, said agency
standards permit it to place potentially suicidal people in isolation as
a last resort. “Due to housing limitations at various facilities,
segregation use for suicide observation is a necessity,” Bennett said.
The standards also permit ICE to use isolation cells to allow medical
staff to monitor detainees on hunger strike when necessary, Bennett said.
Even some of the toughest critics of solitary confinement acknowledge
that it can be necessary to separate people from the general population
of a jail or detention center for a short time. It can be for their own
protection — or to protect others, if a detainee, for instance, is
experiencing a fit of violent anger. But experts and human rights
advocates say that solitary confinement placements should be rare and
last as short a time as possible.
When action must be taken, facilities can first require mediation or
anger management classes, or take away privileges, such as television
time, experts say. Detainees at risk of harm could be transferred to
other units or facilities that have more accommodating populations. If
isolation is necessary, detainees should be permitted meaningful contact
with others for multiple hours a day, and given a clear road map
indicating what they must do to be let out. “Nobody should be on ‘dead
time’ in solitary, meaning they perceive that there is nothing to do and
nothing will improve their situation,” said Terry Allen Kupers, a
psychiatrist and professor at the Wright Institute who has studied
solitary confinement extensively
ICE documentation suggests that the detention center put Rivera in the
suicide watch isolation cell as a form of punishment intended to change
“She has finally begun to reflect upon her actions,” noted a mental
health worker at the facility. “[Rivera] admitted that her actions have
cost her a lot, and she didn’t realize how well she actually had it
(even in SHU) until being back now [on suicide] watch again.”
Experts say using solitary confinement as a way to manage suicidal
detainees is unacceptable. “The only way to respond to suicidal
prisoners and help them is to talk to them, to have an evolving
therapeutic relationship,” Kupers said. “That’s how we treat suicide in
Asking detainees to decide between the threat of violence and the
misery of isolation is no choice at all.
In August 2018, ICE moved Rivera to El Paso. There, the transgender
woman was given the option of rooming in the general population — or
alone in an isolation cell, according to ICE records. (Rivera disputes
that she was offered a choice).
Many case logs reviewed by ICIJ indicate that a detainee requested an
isolation cell for their own protection. Wes Brockway, Rivera’s
attorney, said asking detainees to decide between the threat of violence
and the misery of isolation is no choice at all.
“We’re giving the option of being in a population where they might not
be safe, or going into conditions where they’re extremely isolated and
almost guaranteed to suffer psychological harm,” he said. “It’s
completely contrary to the idea of protecting someone.”
Citing a 2015 agency guidance
on the treatment of transgender detainees, ICE said it weighs housing
options for such individuals with a multidisciplinary team that can
include mental health staff and subject matter experts. The agency said
that transgender detainees should be placed in segregation only as a
last resort and when no other housing options are available.
CoreCivic, which runs the Cibola facility, said that it is contractually
required to follow ICE’s detention standards. “We’re committed, as we
have been for three decades, to creating a safe environment for the
individuals ICE entrusts to our care,” CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda
Gilchrist said, “and to following all federal guidelines on the
appropriate accommodation of transgender detainees.”
In El Paso, Rivera spent nearly eight months in solitary confinement,
mostly under protective custody. On April 9, she was abruptly released
from the detention center altogether.
Punished With Isolation
In the incident reports reviewed by ICIJ, “disciplinary segregation” —
or punishment for breaking the rules — was the single reason most often
given for putting a detainee in solitary confinement.
The infraction most often cited was fighting. Disputes over stolen
shampoo bottles and what television channel to watch sometimes boiled
over into physical altercations in the reports ICIJ reviewed.
Scattered throughout the reports are descriptions of people being placed
in solitary confinement for what seem like minor infractions.
One detainee was placed in isolation for giving haircuts. Another spent
13 days in isolation for consensually kissing another detainee. A third,
despite having a mental illness, remained in solitary for 41 days for
encouraging other detainees to go on hunger strike.
One detainee was placed in isolation for giving haircuts. Another
spent 13 days in isolation for consensually kissing another detainee.
A 2017 audit by the inspector general’s office for DHS identified
“problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their
humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”
ICE detention centers were placing detainees in solitary confinement for
infractions as minor as improperly sharing a cup of coffee, the audit
found. In some cases, the watchdog pointed out, detainees were punished
with solitary because they were suspected of having committed an
infraction that officials needed time to investigate.
Ilyas Muradi, a 30-year-old longtime U.S. resident from Afghanistan, has
spent most of the last four months in solitary at ICE’s South Texas
Detention Complex. He said he was accused of entering a shower without
authorization, and threatening a guard.
Muradi denied that he threatened a guard, but acknowledged getting into
multiple fights with other detainees last year. He said he believes that
guards are now punishing him simply because they don’t like him — and he
is frustrated because he doesn’t know what he can do to be released from
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Muradi said. At the end of one call to
ICIJ, Muradi lost his usual composure, breaking into sobs, asking, “Can
you please help me?”
In recent years, some state prison systems in the U.S. have taken steps
to limit the use of solitary confinement to discipline inmates for
violating facility rules. Texas, where Muradi is detained, outlawed
the practice in its correctional institutions. The state prisons use
solitary confinement only in cases in which a detainee presents a threat
due to gang affiliation or other security risks.
In ICE detention, by contrast, disciplinary isolation is sometimes used
to segregate the victim of an attack.
In mid-April 2017, a 27-year-old detainee named Jeancarlo Jimenez-Joseph
at ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, was placed in
solitary confinement for several days for fighting. Video surveillance
footage shows Jimenez-Joseph being attacked by another detainee and
feebly defending himself.
Not long after he was released from solitary confinement for the fight,
Jimenez-Joseph was back in solitary as punishment for jumping off a
second-level balcony — an action he told staff was aimed at hurting no
one but himself.
After 18 days in segregation, he hanged himself using a sheet tied to a
sprinkler head in his small cell.
In a statement, CoreCivic, which runs the Stewart facility, said that it
was not responsible for health services at the facility at the time of
In the middle of April, on a park bench set back from the din of
Amritsar, India, a temple-dotted city near the Pakistan border,
Karandeep Singh lifted a pristine New York Yankees baseball cap and
pointed to a two-inch scar slanting up from his right eyebrow toward his
hairline. It is a reminder of his attempt to end his life in solitary.
The cut has closed, but Singh, who was deported to India in late
February, said his mental wounds have been slower to heal. “I am
mentally elsewhere. I cannot sleep,” Singh said. He said he has
flashbacks that trigger the fear he felt in solitary confinement in
Texas. “You are changed; you can’t feel safe,” he said.
ICE detainees who recounted their experiences to ICIJ and its partners
gave remarkably similar descriptions of the lasting trauma of solitary
They spoke of feeling cell-bound long after their release; of insomnia;
of suffering vivid flashbacks of isolation, particularly at night; of
grappling with depression and memory loss.
Manpreet Singh, a 30-year-old detainee and acquaintance of Karandeep,
said ICE placed him in solitary for going on hunger strike at the
agency’s facility in Otero County, New Mexico. Manpreet Singh said he
suffers flashbacks at night and has lost interest in socializing. “I
don’t talk to people much anymore,” he said.
After her release on April 9, Dulce Rivera moved into the Las Cruces,
New Mexico, home of a visitation volunteer she had grown so close to in
detention that she calls her “Mom.”
She now has her own bedroom with windows that let in the morning light.
But at night, the fear creeps back in. She has recurring nightmares,
disorientation, and trouble sleeping. And when she goes to bed, she
leaves the door open.
/Contributors: Emilia Diaz-Struck, Scilla Alecci, Ben Hallman, Richard
H.P. Sia, Fergus Shiel, Tom Stites, Hamish Boland-Rudder, Amy
Wilson-Chapman, Pauliina Siniauer, Antonio Cucho, Andrew Lehren, Vanessa
Swales, Alicia Ortega, Julia Ramírez, Enrique Naveda, Suchit Chávez,
Alejandro García, Valeria Durán, Daniel Lizárraga, Andrew Lehren,
Vanessa Swales, Lynn Dombek, Talya Cooper, Roger Hodge, Ariel Zambelich,
Moiz Syed, and Tamoa Calzadilla./
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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