Why the U.S. Must Stop Using Solitary Confinement

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights held its first hearing on solitary confinement yesterday.  The importance of this topic cannot be overstated.  On any day, it is estimated that 80,000 individuals in the criminal justice system are held in some form of isolation, commonly referred to as solitary confinement or segregation. Solitary Cell

But we don’t know the total number of people held in isolation in the United States because the government does not track this information in immigration detention.  We suspect that number runs in the thousands. 

Why should we care?
Immigration detention is the fastest growing incarceration system in the United States.  Each year, nearly 400,000 non-citizens are held in a patchwork of 250 immigration detention facilities, including dozens of county jails and prisons run by private corporations, while their immigration cases move through the courts.  Immigrants are often housed with criminal inmates, so they face the same punitive "inmate management" systems, including the use of solitary confinement.

Immigrants do not have the right to appointed counsel so it’s easy for them to become invisible to the outside world.  When placed in solitary confinement, detainees can also become invisible to the rest of the general population.  Neither criminal nor immigrant detainees have the right to an attorney during an internal classification, disciplinary, or appeal process.  Jail staff has the sole power to determine the length of time detainees spend in solitary confinement, and like most aspects of the immigration detention system, there is no accountability to prevent abuses.  Until the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implements legally enforceable detention standards and a rigorous oversight mechanism, immigrants in solitary confinement are on their own.

Who is held in solitary confinement in immigration detention?
DHS is ignorant as to when, how often, or why detained immigrants are placed in solitary confinement.  But based on NIJC’s encounters with thousands of detained immigrants each year, we have identified a disturbing trend.  Solitary confinement is often used to separate the most vulnerable populations from other detainees, including LGBT asylum seekers, individuals with mental health conditions, juveniles who should not be held in adult detention, and victims of sexual assault.  They are housed in the same segregation units as sexual predators and violent offenders.  In our testimony for the Senate hearing, NIJC shared several stories of immigrants who were held in solitary confinement under these conditions. 

What does solitary confinement look like?
Solitary confinement can take many forms, but in general, detainees are kept in 23-hour lockdown in a small cell with a bed, toilet, and washing basin.  They rarely have contact with other people, apart from a knock on the door when a guard or nurse wants to make sure they are still alive.  As new technology becomes more integrated into prison management systems, guards are turning to closed-circuit camera feeds to monitor detainees, so even this kind of contact is becoming less frequent.

Detainees can hear what’s happening in the rest of the housing unit even if they cannot see other detainees.  NIJC clients have described hearing the screams of people who were mentally ill and even attempted suicides.  As many of our LGBT clients will attest, they can also hear the harassing, derogatory slurs from both detainees and guards.

When detainees are allowed out of their cells, they are handcuffed.  Facilities allow varying recreation time – from a few times a week to once a month or less.  Detainees are given the opportunity to “exercise” in a cage that’s often smaller than their cell.  “Outdoor” recreation can mean that detainees are placed in a room that has an open window to the outside world, even if it’s 20 feet above the ground and they can't see outside.  Recreation accommodations rarely account for seasonal temperatures, so detainees are often forced to choose: stay in extremely cold or hot rooms or stay in their cells for 24 hours a day.

What are the effects of solitary confinement?
Mental health experts agree that the consequences of prolonged isolation are serious for anyone, even if an individual has no history of mental illness.  Though not an exhaustive list, the following are common symptoms of detainees in solitary confinement:  paranoia, weight-loss, inability to concentrate, oversensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, depression, trouble sleeping, loss of sense of time, and difficulty communicating with people from the outside world.  These symptoms start to appear as early as a few days into isolation, but become exponentially worse after 15 days in isolation. 

What can we do?
We cannot continue to support the mental and physical degradation of other human beings, regardless of their immigration status or criminal background.  Ultimately, the U.S. government must end the use of solitary confinement. 

Until that time, federal and local governments must be held accountable for the treatment of detainees.  If an individual is placed in solitary confinement for any reason, DHS should know about it.  In addition, DHS should be required to report regularly on the number of people held in solitary confinement, the reasons for placement, and the length of time each detainee spends in isolation.  Vulnerable populations should not be detained at all; there are more humane and cost-effective alternatives. 

More recommendations are included in NIJC’s testimony for yesterday's Senate hearing.


Alexis Perlmutter is the policy and new media manager for Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center.