An Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center kept an "alarming" number of mentally ill immigrant detainees in solitary confinement for "shockingly" long times, according to a previously confidential Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo obtained by the Project on Government Oversight. One detainee was held in solitary for 904 days.
A 2017 DHS review of an ICE detention center in Adelanto, California, which is operated under a contract by the company GEO Group, found that the detention center's use of prolonged solitary confinement on mentally ill detainees was "both inhumane and in violation of" ICE policy.
The DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties found that incompetent clinical leadership led not only to mentally ill detainees being put in solitary, but also the provision of inadequate medical care, which resulted in detainee injuries and deaths. The same DHS office released a similar report in 2015 that recommended immediately overhauling the detention center's clinical leadership and solitary practices. However, not only were those recommendations ignored, ICE leadership went on television news and told audiences there were no problems at the Adelanto detention center.
In April 2018, the review was sent to current acting director Matthew Albence, who at the time was head of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations division, the part of the agency that arrests, detains, and deports immigrants.
Albence has been a stalwart defender of his agency's detention centers. This summer, during a Fox & Friends segment that also featured an arranged tour of Adelanto, Albence said the facility is "representative of all our detention centers," calling them "humane" and "safe."
"This review shows that ICE's leadership isn't taking findings by the Department's own experts seriously enough," says POGO director of investigations Nick Schwellenbach. "Because these findings are typically secret, they can be easily ignored, putting people at unnecessary risk for months and years."
The treatment of immigrant detainees and the conditions inside ICE detention centers are the subject of numerous lawsuits, and the records shine more light on how thousands of detainees were subjected to solitary confinement under the Obama and Trump administrations.
The Atlantic recently obtained a trove of documents and data on ICE's use of solitary confinement, and it reported that detainees were put in solitary confinement for reasons including "contraband sugar packets, calling a border guard a 'redneck,' menstruating on a prison uniform, kissing another detainee, identifying as gay, and requesting an ankle brace":
The documents demonstrate that both the Obama and Trump administrations used solitary confinement extensively and that both administrations struggled to adequately track when and why people were being isolated. The data also indicate that while the number of immigrants in solitary confinement has grown in proportion to the detainee population, the Trump administration in its first year was more likely to cite mental illness and hunger strikes as reasons for sending immigrants to solitary confinement than the Obama administration was in its final year in office.
Civil liberties advocates and prisoner rights groups say prolonged solitary confinement can have devastating mental and physical effects, especially for those with preexisting mental health issues. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture concluded that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constituted cruel and inhumane punishment.
The number of U.S. inmates held in solitary confinement has dropped over the past five years, but in 2018 an estimated 61,000 people still faced imprisonment in tiny cells for up to 22 hours a day in prisons across the country.
A lawsuit filed earlier this month against the Virginia Department of Corrections alleges that an inmate at Red Onion state prison with a history of mental illness was put in solitary confinement for more than 600 days, during which time he dropped 30 pounds, lost the ability to speak coherently, and can no longer remember his own name.
In May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to end solitary confinement at the state's Red Onion and Wallens Ridge prisons. The lawsuit alleges that inmates subjected to long-term isolation "have suffered severe physical and mental health damage, including weight loss, auditory and visual hallucinations, emotional distress, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, severe sensory deprivation, and suicidal thoughts."
Reason reported last month on a new civil rights lawsuit filed by a Florida inmate who says he was thrown into solitary confinement for seven months for involuntarily biting a guard while he was having a seizure.
The lawsuit comes as the FDOC is fighting another class-action lawsuit—brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services, and the Florida Justice Institute—challenging the state's use of prolonged solitary confinement on inmates.
"There's a growing scientific and community consensus that solitary confinement amounts to torture—mostly psychologically, but also for physical issues as well," Dante Trevisani, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, told Reason. "When you deprive people of like basic human contact, it can be very devastating for them. That's especially true with people who have existing mental illness, or have other disabilities, or are pregnant or juveniles."