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Thousands Of Immigrants Suffer In Solitary Confinement In ICE Detention

The Intercept’s and ICIJ’s reporting, which included a groundbreaking review of more than 8,400 reports describing placements of ICE detainees in solitary confinement, found that the immigration agency has used isolation cells to punish immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing, and to segregate hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees, and people with disabilities.In nearly a third of the cases, detainees were described as having a mental illness, which made them especially vulnerable to breakdown if locked up alone in a small cell. Records reviewed by ICIJ describe detainees in isolation mutilating their genitals, gouging their eyes, cutting their wrists, and smearing their cells with feces.The review found that immigrants held in the agency’s isolation cells had suffered hallucinations, fits of anger, and suicidal impulses. Former detainees told ICIJ that they experienced sleeplessness, flashbacks, depression, and memory loss long after release.“People were being brutalized,” said Ellen Gallagher, who currently holds a supervisory role in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Gallagher has tried for years to sound the alarm within her agency about a wide range of abusive uses of solitary confinement at ICE detention centers.Ellen Gallagher in her home office in Mansfield, Mass., on May 8, 2019.Photo: Kayana Szymczak for The InterceptGallagher, a whistleblower who is going public for the first time, told The Intercept and ICIJ that ICE, a DHS agency, has violated policies that often require a search for less restrictive measures before people are placed in prolonged solitary confinement. She said she has never been so deeply disturbed by a professional matter. “I lost sleep. I cried,” she said.ICIJ’s investigation was conducted over five months in collaboration with Grupo SIN in the Dominican Republic; Plaza Pública in Guatemala; Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción in Mexico; and The Intercept, NBC News, and Univision in the U.S.It comes in the midst of unprecedented public scrutiny of the way that U.S. authorities arrest and detain asylum-seekers and other immigrants. President Donald Trump’s tough stance has caused the population of ICE detention centers to swell, with more immigrants waiting behind bars as their cases languish in heavily backlogged immigration courts — though the routine use of solitary confinement long predates Trump’s presidency.ICIJ’s investigation included interviews with dozens of detainees, and the review of thousands of pages of audits and other documents. The incident reports reviewed by ICIJ describe placements of detainees in solitary confinement from 2012 to early 2017 — adding up to millions of hours of isolation.ICIJ obtained the incident reports through a public records request that asked for logs detailing placements of detainees in solitary confinement. The records cover only a portion of all isolation stays in ICE facilities.ICE said it does not keep records of every solitary confinement placement. Instead, it tracks only cases in which detainees were held in isolation for more than 14 days, and when immigrants with a “special vulnerability” were placed in isolation. This latter category includes detainees who have a mental illness, have been victims of abuse, or would be at risk in a facility’s general population due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.The data generally reflects overall migration trends; more than half of the detainees in the data set are from just four countries: Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.In a statement, ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said the agency’s policy on segregation — the ICE term for isolation — “protects detainees, staff, contractors, and volunteers from harm.” On average, half a percent of ICE’s population was held in solitary for 14 days or more in 2018, she said.Explore the data from more than 8,400 reports describing placements of ICE detainees in solitary confinement.“Gasoline on a Fire”Some detainees spent weeks or months in isolation.More than half of the 8,488 incident reports ICIJ reviewed described stays in solitary confinement that lasted longer than 15 days. ICIJ identified 187 cases in which a detainee was held for more than six months. In 32 of those cases, the detainee was confined in solitary for a year or more.An NBC News review of ICE detainee death reports found that at least 13 detainees who died in ICE custody had spent time in solitary, in some cases up to the time of death. In eight of those deaths, ICE later determined that rules for putting detainees in isolation and procedures for caring for them were not followed, according to agency documents.ICIJ’s analysis found at least 373 instances of detainees being placed in isolation because they were potentially suicidal — and another 200-plus cases of people already in solitary confinement moved to “suicide watch” or another form of observation, in many cases in another solitary cell.“This is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire,” Kenneth Appelbaum, a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who has examined ICE’s segregation practices as a DHS consultant, said of using solitary confinement to manage suicidal detainees. “This is a practice that exposes detainees to real psychological and physiological harm.”Citing nondisclosure agreements with the agency, Appelbaum declined to comment specifically on what he saw at ICE.Some ICE detention centers — such as Adelanto Detention Facility in California, run by the GEO Group, and Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, run by CoreCivic — reported placing hundreds of detainees in isolation. Both facilities are the subject of class-action lawsuits by former detainees alleging that the two private contractors used solitary confinement to force immigrant detainees to work for as little as $1 a day.In response to questions from ICIJ, both the GEO Group and CoreCivic said their work programs are strictly voluntary.The Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, Calif., on April 20, 2019.Photo: Richard Vogel/APOther detention centers appear to use isolation rarely, though there is no way to tell whether a facility is misreporting or underreporting incidents. (One of ICE’s government watchdogs, the DHS Office of Inspector General, has found significant problems with the underreporting of solitary confinement data).The records show dozens of cases of detainees placed in solitary confinement solely due to a disability, many simply because they needed a wheelchair, cane, crutches, or some other aid. One detainee from Guatemala was put in isolation for more than two months only because he had a prosthetic leg. A Nicaraguan man was put in solitary for almost two months — the only listed reason: “Detainee utilizes crutches — deformed leg.”> “Sometimes I feel like someone is choking me. I have flashbacks, like I’m still confined in that little room.”The logs also include 182 descriptions of detainees being isolated for going on hunger strike, a form of protest that advocates argue is protected under the First Amendment.“It was mental torture, nothing else,” said Karandeep Singh, a 29-year-old Sikh from the state of Punjab in northern India who was moved to solitary confinement in the El Paso Processing Center, in Texas, after he refused meals to protest his impending deportation. Singh said that after more than two weeks in solitary, he bashed his head into his cell wall in an attempt to kill himself.Even months after being released from isolation, Singh and other former detainees said they couldn’t move past the experience.“After that first or second week, I lost my mind,” said Ayo Oyakhire, a 52-year-old Nigerian, of his nearly seven weeks in isolation at the ICE unit in Atlanta’s jail. “Sometimes I feel like someone is choking me. I have flashbacks, like I’m still confined in that little room.”A Global OutlierThe origins of solitary confinement date back to European dungeons in the Middle Ages, but the practice was not institutionalized until the rise of the modern penitentiary in the early 19th century. For jailers trying to manage unruly or dangerous prisoners, isolation cells proved a useful tool: Lock them inside an armored box where they can disturb no one but themselves.Beginning with a raft of tough-on-crime laws in the 1970s, the use of solitary confinement surged in the U.S., along with a major boom in its prison population. In 2016, Amy Fettig, head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Stop Solitary campaign, wrote that the use of solitary confinement in America “is a global outlier and human rights crisis.”Most of the attention paid to solitary confinement has focused on prisons. Its use in immigration detention centers has drawn far less notice.In 1993, at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a handful of U.S. detention centers held a few thousand immigrant detainees on any given day. Clinton signed into law new requirements that mandated detention of many immigrants who had served prison time and tripled the size of the detention network.By the time Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, civil detention of noncitizens had become mainstream in U.S. incarceration, with large, private-sector prison companies competing for multimillion-dollar federal contracts to help detain tens of thousands of immigrants. A network of new facilities sprawled across dozens of states, many operated by private contractors or situated within county jails.In February 2014, Gallagher, the whistleblower, who was then a policy adviser for Homeland Security’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office, came across ICE logs detailing the placement of detainees in solitary confinement. At first, she couldn’t believe her eyes: The agency was using the punishing conditions of isolation on civil detainees routinely and often with little apparent justification.Her alarm grew as she gathered more documentation and reviewed cases of ICE detention centers placing mentally ill immigrants in isolation for attempting suicide and for being the victim of a physical attack. One detainee was placed in isolation for the unauthorized possession of a green pepper.Over several months, Gallagher tracked individual cases and gathered reams of documentation. Coming to believe that ICE was violating its own rules and endangering the lives of detainees, she embarked on a yearslong effort to reform the agency’s practices.In a succession of whistleblower memos first circulated internally at DHS and then sent to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — an independent agency where federal employees can file complaints of wrongdoing they think have been ignored — Gallagher alleged that abuses of solitary confinement at ICE had become “urgent and at times life-threatening,” and that the practices contributed to an “ongoing abuse of authority and create a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”ICE’s internal guidelines explicitly require detention officials to document what alternatives to isolation were considered in certain cases. Gallagher often found no evidence that ICE had actually done this.While a breach of ICE’s directive, by itself, would not amount to a legal violation, departing from agency rules can still be highly significant, said Lucas Guttentag, a professor of law at Stanford University. “The directive is effectively internal agency law that every employee and manager must follow with care and fidelity,” Guttentag said. “Directives are critical to governing an agency effectively.”In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said that its Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties had examined ICE’s use of isolation through complaint investigations, working groups, and other advice and feedback. The office has worked with ICE “to improve policy and reduce unnecessary use of segregated housing for ICE detainees,” the spokesperson said. The office said that, in 2016, it collaborated with ICE to implement Obama-era recommendations issued by the Justice Department on improving solitary confinement.DHS’s Office of Inspector General, which Gallagher also communicated with during her whistleblowing — and where she now works as a director in the Office of Integrity and Quality Oversight — pointed to several critical audits it had conducted of ICE facilities since 2016, including one report that focused specifically on the use of segregation and recommended better data-collection practices.Perhaps the most meaningful step taken in response to Gallagher’s whistleblowing was a previously unreported letter sent in June 2015 by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chair at the time, Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and a Democrat on the panel, then-Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. The letter was addressed to Jeh Johnson, who was the Homeland Security secretary.“Recent information obtained by the Committee,” the senators wrote, “suggests that 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.”Believing that she has exhausted her options for whi ...Read more

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