In the first 15 months of the Trump administration, U.S. immigration authorities locked thousands of detainees in solitary confinement, some for months at a time, a new report from the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog that investigates government abuses, has found. This represents an increase of 15.2 percent from the final 15 months of the Obama administration, accelerating a practice that the United Nations has warned can amount to torture.
POGO’s report analyzed more than 6,000 solitary confinement incident reports, covering a span of slightly more than two years, that were filed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by detention centers around the country, from the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency through mid-2018. In roughly 40 percent of those reports, which POGO obtained through a public records request, across both presidential administrations, the detainee placed in isolation had a mental illness diagnosis. The number of placements in solitary confinement jumped by nearly 400 from 2016 to 2017, POGO found.
“Viewed alongside official watchdog reports and insider accounts,” the report reads, “these records depict an immigration detention system in urgent need of more oversight.”
The report builds on “Solitary Voices,” an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Intercept, in addition to five other reporting partners in the United States and Latin America, into the misuse and overuse of solitary confinement at ICE detention facilities. The investigation, based on reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, found that ICE has isolated thousands of the most vulnerable immigrant detainees, including people with severe mental illness, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities, for extended periods of time.
ICIJ’s investigation, and the new report from POGO, comes amid heightened public scrutiny of the way U.S. authorities detain asylum-seekers and other immigrants. President Donald Trump’s tough stance on immigration has led to the widespread detention of immigrants and asylum-seekers and the slow-walking of their cases, causing the population of ICE detention centers to swell, with more immigrants waiting behind bars as their cases languish in heavily backlogged immigration courts. As of August 3, ICE was detaining more than 55,000 people in detention centers nationwide — a record high — even though Congress has only approved funding to maintain 42,000 detention beds.
Solitary confinement, widely understood to be isolation for 22 hours a day or more in a small cell without meaningful social contact, can spark and worsen anxiety, panic attacks, and other emotional or mental distress, and should be used sparingly or not at all, experts say. The most common reason for placement in solitary confinement is breaking the rules, the ICIJ investigation found.
The U.N. has said that solitary confinement should be banned except in “very exceptional circumstances.” It should never be used to isolate people with mental illness or juveniles — and no one should be held for longer than 15 days, the U.N. says.
In a statement, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said that the agency places people in its custody in solitary confinement at rates lower than the national prison population, citing studies ICE conducted in 2012 and 2013 that found that about 1.1 percent of the detained immigrant population is in isolation at any given time, as compared to a national average for prisoners of 4.5 percent. “Any suggestion that the use of segregation in ICE custody is above the norm for detained populations would be a false claim,” he wrote. “In reality, segregation in ICE custody is employed at a rate significantly below the national average for detained populations.”
Immigration detention, however, is civil — it is not meant to be punitive, unlike jails and prisons that house individuals convicted of criminal acts. Civil detention centers are meant to hold immigrants for a short period of time, just long enough for their immigration status to be worked out. In 2017, the average length of stay was 34 days, though some detained immigrants spend months and years behind bars.
POGO identified at least nine cases in which detainees, some of whom were recorded as having a mental illness, were held in isolation for more than a year. A woman with a mental health diagnosis at an ICE detention center in California, for instance, was released from solitary in December 2017 after 454 days. Another woman diagnosed with PTSD was released in August 2017 after 372 days in isolation. (Both of them had been placed in isolation in 2016, while Obama was still in office.) A man “diagnosed with psychotic disorder” was released in April 2018 after 413 days in isolation.
ICIJ’s reporting earlier this year included an analysis of more than 8,400 solitary confinement incident reports from 2013 through early 2017. More than half of those stays lasted longer than 15 days, including 187 cases in which the solitary confinement continued for more than six months. In 32 of those cases, the detained immigrant was isolated for more than a year. Nearly one-third of the overall placements described a detainee diagnosed with a mental illness.
The POGO report’s review of data from January 1, 2016, through May 4, 2018, found more than 4,000 instances of ICE detainees being kept in isolation for more than 15 days. In a quarter of these cases, long-isolated detainees were listed as having a mental illness.
The records obtained by POGO show that 2,565 immigrant detainees were placed in solitary confinement in 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration; about 40 percent of them had a mental illness. In 2017, 2,944 people detained by ICE were placed in solitary confinement; about 39 percent of them had a mental illness. In the first third of 2018, 1,050 detained immigrants were placed in solitary confinement. A POGO analysis estimates that, if the rate of reporting holds steady through the rest of that year, ICE will have placed more than 3,100 people in solitary confinement — about 500 more than during Obama’s final year in office.
The POGO report may add urgency to recent calls by a bipartisan group of lawmakers for ICE to answer questions about its solitary confinement practices.
In June, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., cited ICIJ’s findings in calling ICE’s use of solitary confinement “egregious and appalling abuses.” That same month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called the agency’s practices around isolation “cruel and unnecessary.” Late last month, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., sent a letter to ICE citing ICIJ’s work and demanding answers from the agency on “recent allegations of the misuse of solitary confinement.”