The United States government has placed detained immigrants in solitary confinement more than 14,000 times in the past five years, and the average length is almost twice as long as 15 days. threshold which, according to the United Nations, may constitute torture, according to a new analysis federal records by researchers from Harvard and the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights.
The report, based on government records from 2018 to 2023 and interviews with several dozen former detainees, documents cases of extreme physical, verbal and sexual abuse of immigrants held in solitary confinement cells. The New York Times reviewed the original documents cited in the report, spoke with data analysts and interviewed former detainees to corroborate their accounts.
Overall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests more than 38,000 people, compared to around 15,000 at the start of the Biden administration in January 2021, according to an independent poll tracking system maintained by Syracuse University. A growing proportion of prisoners are held in private penitentiary establishments with little accountability, and preliminary data from 2023 suggests a “marked increase” in the use of solitary confinement, according to the report.
An ICE spokesperson, Mike Alvarez, said in a statement that 15 entities oversee ICE detention centers to “ensure that detainees reside in safe, secure, and humane environments, and under conditions of appropriate containment. He added that detained immigrants can file complaints about facilities or staff behavior by telephone or through the Homeland Security Inspector General.
“Placing inmates in segregation requires careful consideration of alternatives, and placements in administrative segregation for particular vulnerability should only be used as a last resort,” he said, using agency terminology to solitary confinement. “Segregation is never used as a method of retaliation.”
ICE issued guidance in 2013 and 2015 to limit the use of solitary confinement, saying it should be a “last resort.”
But the use of solitary confinement spiked during the pandemic in 2020”under the guise of medical isolation”, according to Physicians for Human Rights. It declined in 2021 but has increased since the middle of that year, throughout the Biden administration, according to the report. Placements in solitary confinement in the third quarter of 2023 were 61% higher than in the third quarter of the previous year, according to ICE quarterly reports.
The average length of solitary confinement over the past five years was 27 days, almost twice the length considered a form of torture according to the UN. More than 680 cases of solitary confinement lasted at least three months, records show; 42 of them lasted more than a year.
The researchers’ work began more than six years ago when faculty members in Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program began requesting documents from the Department of Homeland Security through the Freedom of Information Act. for follow-upobtaining certain records through an order from a federal district court judge in Massachusetts.
Among the documents were copies of emails and surveillance reports exchanged between ICE headquarters officials, as well as records of facility inspections by independent groups and the Homeland Security Inspector General. Investigators also received a spreadsheet containing data from the Segregation Review Management System, a database maintained by ICE headquarters staff on solitary confinement cases at 125 facilities, including the rationale, dates, duration and location of each case.
Data analysts used Excel and Stata to calculate the average durations and total number of confinement placements, as well as to compare data across years and facilities.
ICE arrests and detains immigrants in facilities across the country run by private companies. Some of these people were convicted of serious crimes in the United States and turned over to immigration authorities after serving their sentences; they remain in detention until their expulsion. Others have crossed the border illegally and, rather than being released into the country, are transferred to a detention center where they remain at least until their deportation or asylum application is completed.
Even in the case of convicted criminals, the use of solitary confinement is controversial. Prolonged isolation you were tied to brain damage, hallucinations, heart palpitations, poor sleep, reduced cognitive function and increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Last week, New York City ended the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails.
Although civil detention is not intended to be punitive, government records show the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor offenses or as retaliation for highlighting problems, such as filing complaints or participating in hunger strikes. An immigrant was sentenced to 29 days in solitary confinement for “using profanity”; two received 30 days for a “consensual kiss,” according to a Homeland Security email.
‘I wanted to die’
Court complaints and interviews with former detainees showed that humiliation was a common tactic used against those held in solitary confinement. Immigrants described being called vulgar insults, strip searched and asked by guards to have oral sex. One detainee said that when he asked for water, he was told to “drink the toilet water.” Two of them described being filmed and photographed naked – one of them with his hands and feet tied and in the presence of at least five officials.
The Times interviewed several people cited in the report, who asked that their names and countries of origin not be identified out of fear for their safety because they had been deported.
A 40-year-old former detainee from West Africa, who was held by ICE for four years, including a month in solitary confinement, said guards chose the predawn hours to leave his solitary cell, even though it was too early to do so. him to contact his lawyer or his family by telephone. He said they also left the fluorescent lights on all night, which made it difficult for him to sleep.
Another, 39, a Muslim from Africa, said he was denied halal meals for a month in solitary confinement. He said he was beaten, kicked in the head and kept handcuffed even in the shower.
“It drives you crazy: You’re talking to the walls,” he said in an interview. “In the end, we no longer know anything about the outside world, it’s as if we were dead.”
An asylum seeker from Central Africa who spent three years in ICE detention, including a month in solitary confinement in Mississippi, said one of the most intense methods of psychological abuse was forcing immigrants to constantly wonder how long their isolation would last. He said a guard told him it would last seven days, but then another seven days passed, and then another. The guards laughed, he said.
“It was so stressful, I can’t even say it,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep at all. “I thought about killing myself every day – I wanted to die.”
Detainees also reported extreme gaps and delays in medical care. More than half of the people interviewed by researchers who had asked to see a doctor while in isolation said they waited a week or more to be seen, particularly in cases of chest pain and head trauma. In one case, an inmate said he had to perform CPR on a fellow inmate “while a guard stood there in shock.”
Steven Tendo was a pastor who endured torture in his home country of Uganda, including being placed in an underground prison cell with a python and losing two fingers, little by little, due to cutting -thread.
He arrived in the United States to seek asylum, but instead of finding freedom, he was detained by ICE for 26 months, including recurring stays in solitary confinement. He was denied medication for his diabetes and declining health, but couldn’t reach a lawyer, he said. He was placed in a full restraint called a “wrap” for so long that he soiled himself.
Mr. Tendo has since been released and is living in Vermont, where he is still seeking asylum.
“I would rather be physically tortured at home than relive the psychological pain here,” Mr. Tendo said in an interview. “You wouldn’t think an industrialized country that defends human rights would have such venom. »
Records show Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of General Counsel internally documented more than 60 complaints over the past four years concerning people suffering from serious mental health problems and held in solitary confinement. In some cases, their conditions were the only justifications listed: one immigrant who exhibited “unusual body movements” and “irrational responses” was placed in solitary confinement for 28 days.
Nearly a quarter of those researchers surveyed who had sought mental health care said they had never been seen; Another 23 percent said they were seen again after more than a month. One person experiencing a dissociative episode was not seen for a psychological evaluation for five months, and the evaluations often lasted “maybe five minutes,” one said, conducted without privacy through the door of the cell.
“The serious consequences of placing vulnerable populations in solitary confinement are widely known,” said Sabrineh Ardalan, director of Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, who contributed to the analysis. “The failure to comply with their own guidelines is therefore really striking.”
Mr. Alvarez, the ICE spokesman, said the agency does not isolate detainees solely because of mental illness unless medical staff members indicate otherwise. He added that facility leaders and medical staff meet weekly to review cases of people with mental illness held in solitary confinement.
The report’s authors recommended the creation of a task force that would develop a plan to end the practice of solitary confinement in ICE facilities, present it to Congress, and then fully implement it in a period of one year.
In the shorter term, they proposed a series of other recommendations, including a formal justification for each use of confinement, more explicit standards for facilities and financial penalties for any prison contractors who fail to comply.
Because there is “much less oversight in immigration detention” than in the criminal setting, said Tessa Wilson, senior asylum program manager at Physicians for Human Rights, the findings are intended to “remind It’s up to ICE and the general public to watch and see what’s going on.
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.