Immigration officials to limit solitary confinement after human rights outcry

Liz Goodwin
Senior National Affairs Reporter
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US Border Security

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will limit its use of solitary confinement for the tens of thousands of immigrants in custody after complaints from human rights organizations that the punishment was damaging detainees’ mental health.

ICE announced this week that punitive solitary confinement should be “used only as a last resort” with detainees who have special disabilities such as mental illness. Holding detainees in isolation for more than two weeks at a time — the point at which mental health experts say irreparable mental harm might be done to a person — should be avoided if possible, the new policy also states.

As of March, about 300 of the approximately 30,000 immigrants in the sprawling detention system were held in solitary every day, according to a review by The New York Times. Dozens were held for periods of longer than two months.

Under the new policy, ICE officials must justify in writing why they are holding people in isolation for longer than two weeks. (The previous time frame was a month.) The policy also calls for the formation of a subcommittee to make sure immigrants aren’t being held in isolation excessively. Prisons and detention centers that segregate some detainees more than others will be subject to review.

The policy falls far short of ending the practice of isolation altogether, which is what criminal justice and human rights groups have called for.

The nonprofit National Immigrant Justice Center wrote in a report released last year that solitary confinement is inappropriately punitive for immigrant detainees, most of whom are not serving criminal sentences. Most detainees are being held to ensure they attend their court date and are eventually deported, not to punish them, the groups argue. Unlike criminal defendants, immigrant detainees are also not appointed defense lawyers by the state, which means it can be difficult for them to appeal their treatment.

“It’s a very invisible system. There’s no one from the outside looking in,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, the center’s executive director.

Still, McCarthy praised the new policy, saying it was a step toward greater transparency.

The immigrant group’s report found that some detainees have been held for as long as eight months in isolation, and that many institutions use solitary as a means of punishment for minor infractions, such as speaking Spanish. Cobb County Jail in Georgia required detainees in solitary to wear “double restraints” and only allowed them to exercise outside once every 30 days.

Other facilities fed their solitary detainees “nutraloaf” — a ground-up meatloaflike dish — as punishment. Some had written policies stating all inmates with “homosexual tendencies” should be automatically placed in solitary.

The United Nation's leading authority on torture reported in 2011 that after 15 days, harmful psychological effects of solitary confinement can become permanent. Some people held alone for long periods of time report disorientation, panic attacks and even hallucinations.

The new directive urges officials to consider whether a detainee in solitary could be transferred, released to the general population or even released from custody altogether and monitored. The policy clarifies that people might not be placed in detention solely based on their age, gender or any disability.