Solitary Confinement Torture of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Facilities

April 14, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for immigration detention within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), detains approximately 33,400 immigrants every night and more than 400,000 each year (429,000 in 2011, an all-time high). About two-thirds of these people are held in a sprawling network of over 250 state and local facilities, which contract with ICE to house immigration detainees.

Since 2005, the immigration detention population has increased by 85 percent. Most immigrant detainees have no legal immigration status; many do not speak English; most do not have attorneys to represent their interests; and the public is largely unaware of the unlawful, inhuman punishment, denial of due process, and violation of human rights taking place when immigrants are detained.

And, according to a new report, hundreds of immigrants are being tortured through the use of prolonged solitary confinement in these detention facilities.

And these victims of U.S. torture are not even charged with crimes—they are being held on suspicion of civil, not criminal, offenses, and their detention is supposed to be only to ensure they will appear for their deportation hearings.

At Risk for Severe Mental Harm

On March 24, the New York Times printed an article, "Immigrants Held in Solitary Cells, Often for Weeks." The new federal data from which this article drew its conclusions reports that on any given day, about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities run by ICE. Nearly half of the 300 are isolated for 15 days or more—the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm—with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days.

The article states: "While Immigration and Customs Enforcement places only about 1 percent of its jailed immigrants in solitary, this practice is nonetheless startling because those detainees are being held on civil, not criminal, charges. As such, they are not supposed to be punished; they are simply confined to ensure that they appear for administrative hearings."

The federal data is "the first public snapshot" of the number of immigrants held in solitary confinement, how long they were kept in solitary, and the attendant mental health problems. However, as the New York Times revealed, "the tallies provided by the immigration agency are probably low because many of the detention centers failed to report segregation statistics during some weeks of the review, and some did not include mental health cases in their tallies."

It must be kept in mind that this is solitary confinement for 300 people on any one day. Over the course of a year, or several years, torture of immigrant detainees through the use of prolonged solitary confinement, even by these U.S. government records and statistics, is in the many thousands of people.

A Form of Torture

Solitary confinement is a form of torture, a prison within a prison. In the U.S. prison system, tens of thousands (80,000) of individuals are "buried alive" inside cramped, concrete, windowless 8-by-11-foot cells in near-total isolation for between 22 and 24 hours a day. There is no human contact or fresh air to breathe for months, years, and for some prisoners, decades. International human rights organizations and bodies have condemned this practice. The devastating psychological and physical effects of solitary confinement have been well documented by medical and psychological experts. Prisoners face the excruciating mental anguish associated with long-term solitary confinement: paranoia, depression, memory loss, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, panic attacks, self-harm and self-mutilation—a combination of symptoms that is found in virtually no other psychiatric illness, and which, taken together, form a unique psychiatric syndrome. Solitary confinement is a major factor in suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and actual suicide in the U.S. prison system.

Now we learn that 300 immigrants on any given day, and thousands over the course of months and years, face the same form of torture in U.S. immigration detention facilities. And many medical experts say the psychological impact of solitary on immigrant detainees may be even more traumatic because "many are victims of human trafficking, domestic violence or sexual assault, or have survived persecution and torture in their home countries."

Tortured for Religion, Sexual Orientation, Using Crutches

The article New York Times article discusses several cases:

  • Rashed Bin Rashed, an undocumented immigrant from Yemen, "was sent to a detention center in Juneau, Wis. He was put into solitary confinement after declining to go to the jail's eating area and refusing meals because he wanted to fast during Ramadan."
  • Delfino Quiroz, a gay immigrant from Mexico, was confined in solitary for four months "for his own protection" he was told by detention authorities. "He sank into a deep depression as he overheard three other detainees attempt suicide. 'Please, God,' he remembers praying, 'don't let me be the same.'"
  • A detainee in Pinal County, Arizona, "reported being sent to solitary for nearly three months after allegedly arguing with a guard." "Another detainee in Sherburne County, Minn., said she was isolated after guards found some peanut butter and a Kool-Aid packet in a bag in her cell, a violation of the rules."
  • Ronal Rojas-Castro, a Honduran immigrant, was detained for eight months. He had been "held captive by smugglers for five days with more than 100 other people in a house in Texas near the Mexico border. When one of the immigrants managed to call for help and the immigration agency was alerted, Mr. Rojas-Castro broke his ankle trying to run away." He was later caught and put in complete darkness for four days, in only his underwear, because the guards said his crutches could be used as a weapon.

Stop the Torture Now!

A September 2012 investigative report by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), "Invisible in Isolation—The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention," describes how "guards have unfettered power over immigrants who have no legal recourse for unfair custody decisions."

This first-of-its-kind examination of segregation and solitary confinement in the immigrant detention system in the U.S. is replete with stories about immigrant detainees being put in isolation cells and tortured this way for such things as "complaining about the quality of drinking water" or for having "an extra blanket, bra, and a pair of socks," or for newspaper articles in cells, or for "being in the dayroom playing cards during church services," or for filing grievances against guards.

When confronted with the revelations that the U.S. immigration system is using solitary confinement to torture immigrant detainees, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made clear she was "not wild about the story" printed in the New York Times and actually referred to the specific cases documented as "facts" (in quotes), skeptical about their accuracy! This reality of torture of immigrants in mass civil U.S. detention facilities has been covered up for a long time. The whole truth needs to come out and this torture must stop, now.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.