The U.S. government has placed immigrant detainees in solitary confinement more than 14,000 times in the past five years, and the average duration is nearly double the 15-day threshold that the United Nations says constitutes torture, according to a new federal government analysis . documents from Harvard researchers and the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights.
The report, based on government documents from 2018 to 2023 and interviews with several dozen former detainees, found cases of extreme physical, verbal and sexual abuse against immigrants held in solitary confinement cells. The New York Times reviewed original documents cited in the report, spoke to data analysts and interviewed former inmates to corroborate their stories.
Overall, 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 operated by Syracuse University. According to the report, a growing proportion of inmates are held in private prison facilities with little means to ensure their accountability, and preliminary data from 2023 suggests a “marked increase” in the use of solitary confinement.
An ICE spokesperson, 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 in appropriate conditions of confinement.” He added that detained immigrants can file complaints about facilities or the conduct of staff by telephone or to the inspector general for Homeland Security.
“Placement of inmates in segregation requires careful consideration of alternatives, and administrative segregation for a particular vulnerability should be used only as a last resort,” he said, using the agency’s terminology for solitary confinement. “Segregation is never used as a method of retaliation.”
ICE issued directives in 2013 and 2015 to limit the use of solitary confinement, saying it should be a “last resort.”
But according to Physicians for Human Rights, the use of solitary confinement spiked during the pandemic in 2020 “under the guise of medical isolation.” According to the report, it declined in 2021 but has increased since the middle of that year, during the Biden administration. According to ICE quarterly reports, solitary confinement placements in the third quarter of 2023 were 61% higher than in the third quarter of the previous year.
The average length of time spent in solitary confinement over the past five years was 27 days, nearly double the number that the United Nations says constitutes torture. According to the data, more than 680 cases of isolation lasted at least three months; 42 of them lasted more than a year.
The researchers’ work began more than six years ago, when faculty at the Harvard 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 documents through an order from a judge of the Federal District Court of Massachusetts.
Among the documents were copies of emails and monitoring reports exchanged between officials at ICE headquarters and records of inspections of facilities by independent groups and the Inspector General for Homeland Security. The researchers also received a data sheet from the Segregation Review Management System, a database maintained by ICE headquarters staff members on solitary confinement cases at 125 facilities, including the reason, dates, duration and location for each case.
Data analysts used Excel and Stata to calculate the average duration and total number of confinement placements, as well as to compare data across years and facilities.
ICE arrests and detains immigrants in facilities across the country operated by private companies. Some of these people were convicted of serious crimes in the United States and turned over to immigration authorities after serving their sentences; they remain in custody until they are deported. Others have crossed the border illegally and, instead of being released into the country, are transferred to a detention center where they remain at least until 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, heart palpitations, poor sleep, reduced cognitive function and increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Just last week New York City ended the use of solitary confinement in city jails.
While civil custody is not intended as punishment, government documents show the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor offenses or in retaliation for bringing matters to light, such as filing complaints or participating in hunger strikes. One immigrant received 29 days of solitary confinement for “use of foul language”; two received 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. The immigrants said they were vulgarly insulted, searched and asked by guards to perform oral sex. One inmate said that when he asked for water, he was told to “drink the toilet water.” Two described being filmed and photographed while naked, one of them with his feet and hands tied and with at least five officials present.
The Times interviewed several people cited 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.
A former 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 pre-dawn hours as an opportunity to leave his solitary confinement, when it was too early to contact his lawyer or his family by telephone. He said they also kept the overhead fluorescent lights on all night, making it impossible for him to sleep.
Another, 39, an African Muslim, said he had been refused halal meals during a month of isolation. He said he was beaten, kicked in the head and kept in handcuffs even in the shower.
“It drives you crazy: You talk to the walls,” he said in an interview. “In the end you know nothing about the outside world: it’s as if you’re dead.”
A Central African asylum seeker 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 ask themselves how much it would be during their isolation. He said a guard told him it would last seven days, but then another seven passed, and then another. The guards laughed, he said.
“It was so stressful, I can’t even say it,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at all. I thought about killing myself every day: I wanted to die.
Detainees also reported serious gaps and delays in medical care. More than half of people interviewed by researchers who had asked to see a doctor while in isolation said they waited a week or more to be seen, for cases such as chest pain and head trauma. In one case, an inmate said he had to perform CPR on another inmate “while a guard stood there in shock.”
Steven Tendo was a pastor who had suffered torture in his home country of Uganda, including being locked in an underground cell with a python and losing two of his fingers, piece by piece, to a wire cutter.
He came to the United States seeking asylum, but instead of finding freedom, he was detained by ICE for 26 months, including recurring periods in solitary confinement. He has been denied diabetes medication and his health has worsened, but he has been unable to contact a lawyer, he said. He was placed in a full-body restraint called “the sling” for so long that he soiled himself.
Mr. Tendo has since been released from detention and lives in Vermont, where he is still seeking asylum.
“I would rather be physically tortured at home than face the psychological pain here,” Mr. Tendo said in an interview. “You wouldn’t think a first-world country that stands for human rights would have such venom.”
Records show that the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the General Counsel of Homeland Security have internally documented more than 60 complaints over the past four years involving people with serious mental health conditions who were held in solitary confinement. In some cases, their conditions were the only reasons listed: An immigrant showing “unusual body movements” and “irrational responses” was transferred to solitary confinement for 28 days.
Nearly a quarter of people the researchers interviewed who had sought mental health treatment said they had never been seen; a further 23% said they were seen after more than a month. One person experiencing a dissociative episode had not been seen for a psychological evaluation for five months, and evaluations often lasted “maybe five minutes,” one said, done without privacy through the cell door.
“The serious consequences of placing vulnerable populations in isolation are now widely known,” said Sabrineh Ardalan, director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, who contributed to the analysis. “So the lack of compliance with their own directives is truly astonishing.”
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 mentally ill individuals held in solitary confinement.
The report’s authors recommend establishing a task force that will 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 any use of confinement, more explicit standards for facilities and fines for prison contractors who fail to comply.
Because there is “much less oversight within the immigration detention context” than in the criminal one, said Tessa Wilson, senior asylum program manager at Physicians for Human Rights, the findings are intended to “remind the ICE and the general public will watch and see what happens.”
Audio produced by Sara Diamante.