Every day, out of more than 30,000 detainees, roughly 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the nation’s 50 largest detention centers overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, according to federal data. Solitary confinement is one of most expensive forms of detention, the New York Times reports, and nearly half of immigrant detainees held in solitary confinement are isolated for 15 days or more – “the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm.” About 10 percent are held for more than 75 days. According to the New York Times, immigrants were regularly placed in isolation for breaking rules but also for protection:
While the records do not indicate why immigrants were put in solitary, an adviser who helped the immigration agency review the numbers estimated that two-thirds of the cases involved disciplinary infractions like breaking rules, talking back to guards or getting into fights. Immigrants were also regularly isolated because they were viewed as a threat to other detainees or personnel or for protective purposes when the immigrant was gay or mentally ill.
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.
Ernestine Fobbs, an ICE spokeswoman, told the New York Times that, except for immigrants separated for disciplinary reasons, officials only place detainees in isolation “as a final resort, when other options are not available to address the specifics of the situation.” One of those situations was a Yemeni immigrant who said he was placed in solitary confinement because he refused meals while fasting during Ramadan. Another immigrant from Honduras said he was held in isolation because officials told him his crutches, which he needed after breaking his ankle before being detained, could be used as a weapon.
The fact that hundreds of immigration detainees are held in solitary confinement, often for extended periods, is troublesome. The immigration justice system, where those facing deportation have neither a right to appointed counsel nor a right to a speedy trial, fails to provide a fair process. And as immigration officials have detained and deported a record number of immigrants in recent years, indefinite detention of immigrants does nothing to improve public safety.
The revelation about solitary confinement is yet another indictment of ICE’s detention practices, which have long been criticized for failing to take appropriate factors into account for assessing the necessary level of detention. Many individuals could be released under alternatives to detention, which is both more humane and less costly for the government. Recently, as a result of mandatory budget cuts, ICE officials released about 2,000 immigrants from detention facilities – but not removal proceedings – and placed them in non-detention alternatives in February and early March. Last week at a House hearing about the releases, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) asked ICE Director John Morton why ICE was spending $164 each day to hold immigrants “if they’re not violent, if they’re not repeat offenders.” A similar—and more pointed–question should be asked about the morality of holding individuals in solitary confinement. Rather than holding immigrant detainees in solitary confinement for “protective purposes” and increasing the number of detainees, officials should increase the use of alternatives to detention. It would surely be a simpler way to protect detainees instead of relying on solitary confinement.