Thousands of immigrants in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been subjected to solitary confinement, according to a report on government documents and data. The report revealed that those in solitary are often there because they are LGBTQ, disabled, or they had reported abuse from guards or other detainees; only half of the cases are officially for purposes of punishment, while the rest are there for what ICE called safety reasons.
In total, the data (obtained by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists and shared with five news outlets) covered 8,488 cases of the use of solitary over a five-year period — “only a portion” of all instances of detainee isolation. One out of every 200 detainees ends up in solitary at some point, according to the data. NBC News, one of the outlets that received the data, reported there are, on an average day, 50,000 immigrants detained in over 200 detention centers in the U.S.
ICE officially calls the practice “segregated housing” and its policy is to use it only in extreme cases. But a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) adviser, speaking out for the first time, said that wasn’t the case.
“Solitary confinement was being used as the first resort, not the last resort,” Ellen Gallagher, a DHS policy adviser, told The Intercept. “We have created and continue to support a system that involves widespread abuse of human beings.”
According to NBC News, those who have spent time in solitary include a Ukrainian with mental health issues, who put half a green pepper in his sock (15 days), a Guatemalan man with a prosthetic leg (two months), and a Central American transgender woman, who allegedly kissed other detainees. NBC News reported the allegations against that woman, Dulce Rivera, were unfounded; after four weeks in solitary, she attempted to take her own life.
“You never know what day it is, what time it is,” Rivera, 36, told The Intercept, who reported she spent 23 hours a day in a cell. “Sometimes, you never see the sun.”
Other detainees who had experienced solitary had similar descriptions.
“After that first or second week, I lost my mind,” said 52-year-old Nigerian Ayo Oyakhire, who spent almost seven weeks isolated at the Atlanta jail’s ICE unit. “Sometimes, I feel like someone is choking me. I have flashbacks like I’m still confined in that little room.”
“It was mental torture,” said 29-year-old Karandeep Singh from northern India. Singh refused food to protest his upcoming deportation, was moved to solitary afterwards, and attempted to take his own life in his cell by banging his head against the wall.
“The only thing they told me was that it was because of the way I looked,” a 22-year-old trans woman named Kelly told NBC News. “Every time I closed my eyes when I was trying to sleep, I began to have nightmares, horrible memories, things that I didn’t want to remember.”
“It’s still happening to me,” Kelly said. The Intercept’s report includes many stories of trans women. In February, ICE told LGBTQ newspaper, the Washington Blade that 45 of the 111 trans women in its custody at the time were being held at a single, privately run facility in Texas.
An ICE spokesperson told NBC News the agency “is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.”
“The use of restrictive housing in ICE detention facilities is exceedingly rare, but at times necessary to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in a facility,” the spokesperson continued. “ICE’s policy governing the use of special management units protects detainees, staff, contractors, and volunteers from harm by segregating certain detainees from the general population for both administrative and disciplinary reasons.”