U.S. immigration authorities locked thousands of people in solitary confinement in 2023, as the United States continues to flout international human rights standards in its sprawling network of immigration detention facilities.
A new report by Harvard University-affiliated researchers and the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights found the dangerous confinements have not only persisted over the past decade but increased in frequency and duration under the current administration.
The report highlights the gap between President Joe Biden’s campaign rhetoric and the lived reality of an estimated 3,000 immigrant detainees held in isolation last year, often for prolonged periods — a practice that the United Nations warned can amount to torture.
“This is a sheer failure of the Biden administration to stop egregious human rights abuses,” Tessa Wilson, a senior program officer for Physicians for Human Rights and a co-author of the report, told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “The use of solitary confinement is actually only increasing.”
The adverse effects of solitary confinement — generally defined as isolation without meaningful human interaction for 22 hours a day or more — are well documented. It can cause extreme psychological and emotional distress, and lead to sleeplessness, chronic depression, hallucinations, self-harm and suicidal impulses.
In the U.S., home to the world’s largest immigration detention system, solitary confinement has become a go-to tool to manage the swelling number of detained immigrants. More than 38,000 people, including long-term U.S. residents and people seeking asylum, were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody as of Jan. 28, 2024.
This is a sheer failure of the Biden administration to stop egregious human rights abuses.
— Tessa Wilson, senior program officer for Physicians for Human Rights
In 2019, ICIJ’s Solitary Voices investigation examined the misuse and overuse of solitary confinement, labeled “segregation,” in detention centers under the agency’s control. A review of more than 8,400 internal ICE incident reports from 2012 to 2017 revealed that many detainees were placed in isolation cells for weeks or months at a time, including people with pre-existing mental illnesses and other vulnerabilities.
The investigation, which ICIJ reported in collaboration with The Intercept and other media partners, found that solitary confinement was used to punish some detainees for offenses as minor as consensual kissing or giving haircuts to one another. ICE also segregated hunger strikers, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities.
One of ICE’s directives acknowledges that isolating detainees — who aren’t considered prisoners and aren’t held for punitive reasons under federal law — is “a serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives.” And yet the new report found the agency recorded more than 14,000 solitary confinement cases from 2018 to 2023.
Researchers said the number is likely an undercount due to ICE’s poor recordkeeping. They filed multiple Freedom of Information Act Requests, beginning in 2017, to obtain the relevant data from ICE and other agencies, and eventually resorted to litigation.
The average length of the recorded confinements was 27 days, researchers found, stretching well beyond the 15-day period that meets the threshold for “inhuman and degrading treatment” defined by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. The data revealed dozens of examples of facilities holding people in solitary confinement for over a year.
Through more than two dozen interviews with detainees, researchers also gathered accounts of the grueling conditions inside isolation cells. Interviewees described cells that were freezing cold; constantly lit, causing sleep deprivation; or had toilets only guards could flush.
“The light is on 24 hours a day … the guards wouldn’t dim or turn them off at times,” an unnamed 30-year-old female former detainee told the researchers. “We went crazy.”
Echoing ICIJ’s previous findings, researchers found that solitary confinement was often used as a disciplinary measure for minor infractions and to segregate transgender detainees in “a pattern of systemic discrimination and neglect that contravenes ICE’s own policies.”
Since 2019, the number of detainees with recorded mental health conditions placed in solitary confinement jumped from 35% to 56% in 2023, the report states.
U.N. experts have warned specifically about the grave dangers of isolating people with mental illness.
‘Inappropriate and inhumane’
The new report also highlights ICE’s troubling use of solitary confinement for “medical isolation” of detainees who are sick, disabled or experiencing a mental health crisis.
“ICE’s failure to ensure adequate medical resources in detention centers created life-threatening conditions for immigrants in solitary confinement,” the report states.
Katherine Peeler, a co-author of the report and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said that in many of the cases researchers reviewed ICE should have sent detainees to outside medical facilities.
“Every ICE detention center has a relationship with a local hospital, so there’s always a better option than solitary confinement,” she told ICIJ. “The conflation of medical isolation and solitary confinement is inappropriate and inhumane.”
The report is a collaboration between Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Law School and nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights.
In 2019, ICIJ identified at least 373 instances of detainees being placed in isolation due to suicide risk — and another 200-plus cases of people already in solitary confinement being moved to “suicide watch” or other forms of observation, often in altered solitary cells.
“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 consultant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told ICIJ at the time.
‘A tipping point’
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have publicly acknowledged concerns over the widespread use of solitary confinement by ICE but have done little to fix the problem.
As a candidate, Biden pledged to end the use of solitary confinement. His proposed ban, as outlined on his campaign website, would have “very limited exceptions such as protecting the life of an imprisoned person.”
Likewise, Vice President Kamala Harris, as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, also advocated for ending solitary confinement. In late 2019, Harris along with other senators introduced extensive legislation that would outlaw locking detainees in solitary confinement in most instances as a punishment. The bill did not advance.
“[E]xisting executive and legislative oversight mechanisms have failed to stop this madness.”
— Ellen Gallagher, Solitary Voices whistleblower
Mike Alvarez, a spokesperson for ICE, said the agency had not yet received the report and declined to answer specific questions about it. But he defended the agency’s practices in an emailed statement.
“More than 15 internal and external entities provide oversight of ICE detention facilities to ensure detainees reside in safe, secure, and humane environments, and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” Alvarez said.
“The agency continuously reviews and enhances civil detention operations to ensure noncitizens are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled.”
The new report is not the first time the Biden administration has been criticized for its handling of solitary confinement in its immigration detention centers.
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In 2022, whistleblower Ellen Gallagher, a supervisor within DHS, which oversees the vast U.S. immigration detention apparatus, told ICIJ that there “continues to be a stunning level of inaction.” She said she was “not aware of any systemic change in this area” at that time.
Gallagher first went public with her concerns about ICE detention policies in interviews with the ICIJ as part of its 2019 investigation. “People were being brutalized,” Gallagher told ICIJ at the time.
She expressed dismay at the new report’s findings.
“As this report makes clear, despite a plethora of data displaying profound human suffering, existing executive and legislative oversight mechanisms have failed to stop this madness,” Gallagher said. “If there is a tipping point, I hope it’s now.”