For years, experts have warned that the use of solitary confinement should be rare and detainees should be released as soon as safely possible. Studies have found those held in isolation almost invariably suffer from anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, depression, and other mental health problems. And solitary time just exacerbates existing mental illness.
Yesterday, a coalition called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) — which includes The Intercept, NBC News, and Univision in the United States — published an investigative report highlighting the troubles of immigrant detainees placed in solitary confinement under the supervision of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Journalists reviewed more than 8,400 cases involving segregated ICE detainees, the vast majority of whom had not been accused of a crime.
The analysis includes newly uncovered data about immigrant detainees at the Krome Service Processing Center, an ICE facility in west Miami-Dade County. The ICIJ found 195 reports of solitary confinement at Krome from February 2013 to September 2017; in nearly three-quarters of the cases, detainees had been placed in segregation for disciplinary reasons.
While the United Nations' expert on torture says keeping detainees in solitary for more than 15 days is "inhuman," the median time for immigrants held at Krome was 17 days, according to an analysis of data by New Times. One detainee, a person from Belize, was held 124 days — a little more than four months.
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The ICIJ also found 182 detainees, including three at Krome, had been placed in solitary for going on a hunger strike. ICE has previously been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for segregating immigrants who hunger strike, a practice the ACLU says is protected under the First Amendment. Krome has a bleak history of dealing with hunger strikers — in 2015, a massive group of protestors marched outside the facility in opposition to a judge's order to force-feed ten detainees from Bangladesh.
Most notable, the new report reveals that almost a third of ICE detainees held in solitary confinement suffered from some form of mental illness. (At Krome, the figure is closer to half.) That goes against best practices for detention facilities, including the recommendation of the UN expert, who believes people with mental illness should never be segregated.
The abuse of solitary confinement ultimately led Ellen Gallagher, a high-ranking U.S. Department of Homeland Security official, to blow the whistle on her own agency. Gallagher's action ultimately spurred a letter from Sens. Chuck Grassley and Al Franken to the Homeland Security secretary in 2015. The letter stated 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."
Gallagher says she spoke with journalists to expose the abusive practice and inform the public about what really goes on inside ICE detention facilities. Without public action, "this same set of circumstances will not stop," she told the Intercept. "And I think it will actually get worse."