On Wednesday, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asking “what steps ICE has taken to document and justify the use of segregation.”
The letter was spurred by “recent allegations of the misuse of solitary confinement” in ICE detainment centers, the senators wrote, citing an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Intercept, NBC News, and other reporting partners.
The ICIJ investigation, which involved a review of more than 8,400 reports describing placement in solitary confinement from 2012 to early 2017, found that ICE uses isolation as a go-to tool, rather than a last resort, to punish vulnerable detained immigrants.
Our reporting also included interviews with Ellen Gallagher, a Department of Homeland Security whistleblower who sounded the alarm about ICE’s misuse of solitary confinement for years before going public with her concerns for the first time in interviews with the reporting consortium. Gallagher’s attempts at whistleblowing, which date back to 2014, included outreach to congressional offices. Grassley, along with then-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., took perhaps the most serious step in response to Gallagher’s complaints, sending a June 2015 letter to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, citing her findings about the use of solitary confinement and demanding an explanation.
“I have been blowing the whistle on this issue for many years to almost complete silence. One notable exception was the willingness of Senators Grassley and Franken in 2015 to write a letter seeking accountability,” Gallagher wrote in an email on Wednesday. “Then as now, it is hard to express my gratitude that a bipartisan pair of Senators remain willing to challenge the widespread, abusive use of solitary confinement for civil detainees. I pray that DHS will treat their concerns and my disclosures with the seriousness they deserve.”
“It is hard to express my gratitude that a bipartisan pair of Senators remain willing to challenge the widespread, abusive use of solitary confinement for civil detainees.”
Grassley and Blumenthal both sit on the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over ICE. Grassley is the first Republican on the panel to publicly respond to our investigation; though he has not called for a hearing on the issue, a reaction from him could carry more weight than demands by the panel’s Democrats, who do not have the power to independently convene a hearing in the GOP-held Senate.
Blumenthal responded to our May report by calling for an investigation into ICE’s use of solitary confinement. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., last month sent a letter asking Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to convene a hearing on ICE’s “egregious and appalling abuses,” including the use of solitary confinement, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., demanded answers from ICE about its use of solitary confinement.
In the Wednesday letter, addressed to acting ICE director Matthew Albence, Grassley and Blumenthal also cite recent investigations by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, or OIG, which reveal discrepancies in ICE’s documentation of how it uses solitary confinement. “It is imperative that ICE swiftly resolve any lacking oversight or improper documentation pertaining to the use of segregation,” they wrote, using the label that ICE applies to solitary confinement, which is typically understood to mean total isolation with no human contact for at least 22 hours a day.
Grassley and Blumenthal asked the agency to brief their offices on six questions and issues. The senators ask for data on placements in solitary confinement over the last three fiscal years, the steps the agency takes to ensure that the use of solitary is properly documented, and ICE’s practices to ensure that solitary confinement is “appropriate and required.” The senators also asked for information on ICE’s detention facilities and its oversight over contracted facilities.
“What specific assistance from Congress would ICE need to ensure the agency is addressing the OIG’s concerns as it pertains to those detainees who require special attention?” the list of questions concludes.
In their letter, the senators write that there are structural obstacles to effective ICE oversight over the use of solitary confinement.
“Many detention facilities have two basic areas of detention: general population and segregation,” Grassley and Blumenthal wrote. “As noted in the OIG reports, detainees who require special attention are placed in a detention space where only one detainee is held and monitored …. Unlike the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, ICE detention facilities are not funded to assess and address all scenarios; nor are they funded to provide for multi-level detention facilities.”