The United States government has placed immigrant detainees in solitary confinement more than 14,000 times in the past five years, and the average length is nearly twice the 15-day limit that the United Nations has said may constitute torture, according to a new analysis by the federal files from researchers at Harvard and the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights;
The report, based on government records from 2018 to 2023 and interviews with several dozen former detainees, noted cases of extreme physical, verbal and sexual abuse of immigrants held in solitary confinement. The New York Times reviewed the original records cited in the report, spoke with data analysts and interviewed former inmates to corroborate their stories.
In all, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is detaining more than 38,000 people — up from about 15,000 at the start of the Biden administration in January 2021, according to an independent tracking system maintained by Syracuse University. A growing proportion of prisoners are held in private prisons with few means of accountability, and preliminary data from 2023 suggest a “significant increase” in the use of solitary confinement, according to the report.
An ICE spokesman, Mike Alvarez, said in a statement that 15 entities oversee ICE detention facilities to “ensure that detainees reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.” He added that immigration detainees can file complaints about facilities or staff behavior by phone or through the Homeland Security inspector general.
“Placement of inmates in segregation requires careful consideration of alternatives, and administrative segregation placements for a specific vulnerability should only be used as a last resort,” he said, using the agency’s terminology for segregation. “Segregation is never used as a method of retaliation.”
ICE issued guidance in 2013 and 2015 limiting the use of solitary confinement, saying it should be a “last resort.”
However, the use of solitary confinement increased during the 2020 pandemic “under the guise of medical isolation,” according to Doctors for Human Rights. It declined in 2021, but has been increasing since the middle of that year, throughout the Biden administration, according to the report. Placements in solitary confinement in the third quarter of 2023 were 61% higher than in the third quarter of the previous year, according to ICE’s quarterly reports.
The average length of time spent in solitary confinement over the past five years was 27 days, almost double the number the UN believes constitutes torture. More than 680 cases of solitary confinement lasted at least three months, records show. 42 of them lasted more than a year.
The researchers’ work began more than six years ago, when faculty members at Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program began requesting documents from the Department of Homeland Security through the Freedom of Information Act. They eventually sued, obtaining some records through an order from a federal district court judge in Massachusetts.
Among the documents were copies of emails and surveillance reports exchanged between ICE headquarters officials and records of facility inspections by independent teams and the Homeland Security inspector general. Investigators also obtained a spreadsheet of data from the Segregation Review Management System, a database maintained by ICE headquarters staff members of segregation cases at 125 facilities, including the rationale, dates, duration and location of each case.
Data analysts used Excel and Stata to calculate mean durations and total number of restraint placements, and to compare data between years and facilities.
ICE arrests and holds immigrants in facilities across the country run by private companies. Some of these people were convicted of serious crimes in the United States and surrendered to immigration authorities after serving their sentences. they remain in custody until they are deported. Others crossed the border illegally and, rather than being released into the country, are taken to a detention center where they remain at least pending the outcome of their deportation or asylum hearings.
Even in the case of convicted criminals, the use of solitary confinement is controversial. Prolonged isolation has been linked to brain damage, hallucinations, palpitations, poor sleep, reduced cognitive function and an increased risk of self-harm and suicide.
Although civil detention is not intended as punishment, government records show the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor offenses or as retaliation for raising issues, such as filing complaints or participating in hunger strikes. An immigrant was placed in solitary confinement for 29 days for “using profanity”. two were given 30 days for a “consensual kiss,” according to a Homeland Security email.
“I wanted to die”
Legal complaints and interviews with former inmates showed that humiliation was a common tactic used against those in solitary confinement. Migrants report being called vulgar insults, searched and asked by guards to perform oral sex. One prisoner said that when he asked for water, he was told to “drink water from the toilet”. Two described being pulled over and photographed while naked — one of them with his feet and hands bound and with at least five officials present.
The Times interviewed several people named in the report, who asked that their names and countries of origin not be identified out of fear for their safety as they had been deported.
An ex-detainee, 40, from West Africa, who was held in ICE custody for four years, including a month in solitary confinement, said guards had chosen the morning hours as an opportunity for him to leave his cell when it was very early to contact his lawyer or family by phone. He said they had also kept the fluorescent lights on all night, making it impossible for him to sleep.
Another, 39, a Muslim from Africa, said he had been denied Halal meals during a month in solitary confinement. He said he had been beaten, kicked in the head and handcuffed even in the shower.
“It drives you crazy – you talk to the walls,” he said in an interview. “After all you don’t know anything about the outside world – it’s like being dead.”
An asylum seeker from central Africa who spent three years in ICE custody, including a month in solitary confinement in Mississippi, said one of the most intense methods of psychological abuse was forcing immigrants to constantly wonder how long their solitary confinement would last. He said a guard had told him it would take seven days, but then another seven passed and another. The guards laughed, he said.
“It was so stressful, I can’t even tell,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at all. I thought about killing myself every day — I wanted to die.”
Prisoners also reported extreme gaps and delays in medical care. More than half of the researchers asked to see a doctor while in isolation said they waited a week or more to be seen, for cases including chest pain and head trauma. In one case, a prisoner said he had to perform CPR on a fellow inmate “while a guard stood there in shock.”
Stephen Teddo was a pastor who had endured torture in his native Uganda, including being placed in an underground prison cell with a python and losing two fingers bit by bit to a wire cutter.
He arrived in the United States seeking asylum, but instead of finding freedom, he was held by ICE for 26 months, including repeated stints in solitary confinement. He was denied medication for his diabetes and his health deteriorated, but he was unable to contact a lawyer, he said. He was placed in a full-body restraint device called “the wrap” for so long that he got dirty.
Mr. Tendo has since been released from custody and lives in Vermont, where he is still seeking asylum.
“I’d rather be physically tortured back home than come back through the psychological pain here,” Mr. Tendo said in an interview. “You wouldn’t think a first-world country that stands up for human rights would have such venom.”
Records show that Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Attorney General’s Office have internally documented more than 60 complaints over the past four years about people with serious mental health conditions being held in solitary confinement. In some cases, their conditions were the only reasons cited: One migrant who exhibited “unusual body movements” and “irrational responses” was taken to solitary confinement for 28 days.
Almost a quarter of people surveyed by the researchers who had sought mental health care said they had never seen one. An additional 23 percent said they had been seen after more than a month. A person who experienced a dissociative episode was not seen for a psychological evaluation for five months, and the evaluations often lasted “maybe five minutes,” one said, conducted without privacy through the cell door.
“The serious consequences of placing vulnerable populations in isolation are fairly widely understood,” said Sabrineh Ardalan, director of Harvard’s Migration and Refugee Clinical Program, who contributed to the analysis. “So the lack of compliance with their own guidelines is really impressive.”
Mr. Alvarez, the ICE spokesman, said the agency does not isolate detainees solely for mental illness unless directed to do so by medical staff. He added that facility leaders and medical staff meet weekly to review cases of people with mental illness held in isolation.
The report’s authors recommended the creation of a task force that would develop a plan to end the practice of solitary confinement in ICE facilities, present it to Congress, and then implement it in full within a year.
In the short term, they offered a number of other recommendations, including a formal justification for each use of the restriction, clearer facility standards and financial penalties for any non-compliant prison contractors.
Because there is “much less oversight inside the immigration detention facility” than in the criminal environment, said Tessa Wilson, senior program manager for the asylum program at Physicians for Human Rights, the findings are intended to “remind ICE and the broader audience to look and see what is happening.”