United States immigration authorities hold more than 40,000 people in detention centers at any given time. Some are asylum seekers; others are awaiting deportation. All are civil detainees, meaning that, under U.S. law, they are not held for punitive reasons.
Yet since at least 2012, thousands have been subjected to one of the harshest punishments of all: isolation in a separate cell.
Solitary Voices is an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists; Grupo SIN in the Dominican Republic, Plaza Pública in Guatemala; Mexicanos contra la Corrupción in Mexico; and NBC News, The Intercept and Univision in the U.S. The reporting, conducted over five months, found widespread misuse — and overuse — of solitary confinement in detention centers overseen by the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
Confinement for 22 hours a day or more in a small cell without meaningful social contact can spark and worsen anxiety, panic attacks, rage and other emotional or mental distress, and should be used sparingly or not at all, experts say.
The United Nations has said solitary confinement, or “segregation” as it is called within ICE, should be banned except in “very exceptional circumstances.” It should never be used to isolate the mentally ill or juveniles — and no one should be held for longer than 15 days, the U.N. says.
But ICIJ and its partners found that ICE detention centers have used solitary confinement to isolate thousands of the most vulnerable immigrant detainees, including people with severe mental illness, LGBTQ people and the disabled, for weeks and months at a time. Our analysis found at least 373 instances of detainees being placed in isolation because they were potentially suicidal — and 187 cases in which a detainee was held in solitary for more than six months.
The reporting shows that ICE is misusing, and overusing a form of punishment that is often allowed only as a last resort.
One of the sources for the investigation is Ellen Gallagher, an official within the Department of Homeland Security who shared documents and emails with ICIJ that show a years-long attempt to convince ICE to make meaningful reforms. She is going public with her story for the first time.
The investigation is supported by an original analysis of more than 8,400 incident reports covering about five years that describe placements of immigrant detainees in isolation cells for fighting, for disobeying rules, for hunger striking; because they are suicidal or at risk of harm from people in the general population; and sometimes because of their identity — because they are gay, or transgendered, or disabled. Read more about the data used in Solitary Voices.
It is grounded in the stories of the detainees themselves, who spoke of intense depression, hallucinations, anger, and for some, mounting desperation that led them to suicide attempts.
These solitary voices agreed to share their experiences with the hope that others will be spared the conditions they endured.
Global crisis support resources can be found via the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
The ICIJ Team
Director: Gerard Ryle
Project Manager: Fergus Shiel
Project Editor: Ben Hallman
Lead Reporter: Spencer Woodman
Data Editor and Partnership Coordinator: Emilia Díaz-Struck
Online Editor: Hamish Boland-Rudder
Community Engagement Editor: Amy Wilson-Chapman
Data Reporter: Karrie Kehoe
Associate Editor and Fact Checker: Richard H.P. Sia
Copy Editor: Joe Hillhouse
Additional Editing: Tom Stites
Video Reporter: Scilla Alecci
Web Developer: Antonio Cucho Gamboa
Illustrator: Rocco Fazzari
Alicia Ortega (Dominican Republic)
Julia Ramírez (Dominican Republic)
Enrique Naveda (Guatemala)
Suchit Chávez (Guatemala)
Alejandro García (Guatemala)
Valeria Durán (Mexico)
Daniel Lizárraga (Mexico)
Andrew Lehren (United States)
Hannah Rappleye (United States)
Vanessa Swales (United States)
Maryam Saleh (United States)
Lynn Dombek (United States)
Talya Cooper (United States)
Moiz Syed (United States)
Tamoa Calzadilla (United States)