Immigrant voices: Life in solitary

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013 

U.S. immigration officials announced a new directive last week that adds oversight and limitations to the use of solitary confinement for immigrants held in detention for administrative purposes. 

The move comes six months after The Investigative Reporting Workshop published an investigation with The New York Times revealing that more than 300 individuals end up in isolation on any given day at immigration detention facilities. That data was based on an internal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) survey of the top 50 immigration detention facilities. A subsequent review found that approximately 400 individuals are segregated from the general population across the entire ICE detention system.  

“Placement of detainees in segregated housing is a serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives,” said Ernestine Fobbs, a spokesperson for ICE. “The new procedures ensure that agency leaders will review extended placements in segregation for all detainees and continue them only if necessary and in line with applicable detention standards.”  

Above is a video from the Workshop’s investigation that includes rare footage inside solitary confinement cells in immigration detention. Solitary cells are thought to be one of the harshest corners of the current immigration system. The video includes interviews with immigrant detainees who were isolated for than two weeks, a period that medical researchers say may lead to permanent psychological damage. 

We first heard about the use of solitary confinement during our reporting for the PBS FRONTLINE documentary Lost in Detention, when detainees told us jail officials would threaten them with solitary confinement for minor grievances. 

After the New York Times article, outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of ICE’s “segregation” policies and practices. The agency had already begun to look into the scope of the practice with medical, legal and human rights advisors, including Mary Meg McCarthy, the executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, who is featured in the video. 

The new directive announced last week is a result of ICE’s review. It requires additional reviews of detainees held for more than 14 days to determine whether extended confinement is necessary. It also bars detention officers from involuntary isolation based solely on issues of sexual orientation, religion, disability and age. 

Congress requires ICE hold more than 32,000 immigrants in detention on any given day, a mandate that is thought to be unique in the justice system. Many detainees come from criminal backgrounds, have mental health issues, or are victims of abuse. ICE segregates detainees mostly for disciplinary purposes, but also for protective purposes. The new policies direct jail officials to look for alternatives to isolation for individuals who are not subject to mandatory detention. 

Update: Since we interviewed sources earlier this year, ICE deported immigrant Esteban Tiznado to Mexico. 

Contributors: Michael Blain, Alexia Campbell, Jackie Ho, Christina Frenzel, Carl Reeverts, Julia Broemmel