Blog of Rights

Stop Subjecting Immigration Detainees to Widespread and Prolonged Solitary Confinement

By Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. Prisons Policy & Program, National Religious Campaign Against Torture & Chris Rickerd, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 4:29pm

Senator Chuck Schumer made a clear demand to reform Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) detention practices two weeks ago, a demand applauded by civil rights and faith communities: "[I]f ICE will not act to limit periods of solitary confinement to no more than 14 days except in the most extreme circumstances, I will seek to address that in our forthcoming [immigration reform] legislation." A recent New York Times article exposed the common use of solitary confinement in immigration detention facilities:

On any given day, about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities that make up the sprawling patchwork of holding centers nationwide overseen by [ICE]. Nearly half 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.

Many detainees are in solitary confinement because they have mental or psychiatric disabilities, or require protection from other detainees.

Solitary confinement is a cruel, inhumane punishment. For many people of faith working to bring an end to this destructive practice in U.S. prisons, jails and detention centers, it amounts to torture. Senator John McCain has said about his time in isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam: "It's an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment."

Research consistently demonstrates that the psychological effects of solitary confinement are devastating, resulting in hallucinations, paranoia, and increased rates of self-mutilation and suicide. In California, for example, although less than 10 percent of the state's prison population was held in isolation units in 2004, those units accounted for 73 percent of all suicides. Yet immigration jails frequently use solitary as a measure to punish for minor offenses, as well as to "protect" especially vulnerable populations like youth, LGBT people, and persons with mental disabilities.

All of the many faith traditions that comprise the National Religious Campaign Against Torture – its more than 320 diverse religious-member orgs across the US – recognize the inherent dignity of each human being. They believe that solitary confinement denies the essential human need for community, is a violation of human dignity, and must be brought to an end. Although American corrections systems are being criticized domestically and abroad for their frequent use of solitary confinement as a punishment, the discovery of solitary confinement in immigration jails is particularly startling because these people are being held for civil deportation proceedings, not for criminal offenses.

The current inhumane practice of solitary confinement at immigration detention facilities is profoundly inconsistent with American values and the beliefs of people of faith, and it must come to an end. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano took a step in the right direction by stating, in response to the Times article, "I think solitary confinement should be the exception, not the rule," but the Department hasn't met Senator Schumer's deadline for reform. We call on Congress to act.

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