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“Solitary Confinement Has No Place in Immigration Detention”

Mike Corradini, JD on October 21, 2011

For his first official investigation as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Juan Mendez chose to tackle the question of whether the use of solitary confinement amounts to torture. The use of solitary confinement, where prison and jail inmates are locked in their cells alone for 22 to 24 hours a day with little to no access to sunlight, fresh air, and human contact, has become a widespread practice around the world since it was first developed in the US in the early 1800’s. On October 18, after formally transmitting the results of his investigation to the UN General Assembly, Professor Mendez told the audience at an event, co-sponsored by PHR, that in almost all circumstances, the social isolation and sensory deprivation inherent in solitary confinement constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and often rises to the level of torture.

For the tens of thousands of people who are kept in solitary confinement in the US and throughout the world every day, this conclusion comes as no surprise. The psychological effects of solitary confinement, which can include anxiety, depression, hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis, and self-harm, are well-documented and long-lasting. Indeed, Prof. Mendez concluded that after as few as 15 days in solitary confinement, some of these harmful effects can become irreversible.

The panelists at the event, “The Dangerous Over-Use of Solitary Confinement,” echoed Prof. Mendez’s conclusions. Prof. Craig Haney, an expert on solitary confinement, noted that the continued use of solitary confinement in the face of overwhelming evidence of the suffering it causes shows that “we have abandoned our commitment to rehabilitation,” while Jamie Fellner, a senior advisor at Human Rights Watch, concluded that institutions that use solitary confinement “create their own monsters.”

Noting that “negative health effects can occur after only a few days in solitary confinement, and the health risks rise with each additional day spent in such conditions,” Prof. Mendez recommended that in all cases where an inmate is subjected to solitary confinement, there must be an “affirmative determination that it will not result in severe pain or suffering.” Dr. Venters echoed this recommendation, saying that there is a vital role for an independent medical authority in determining whether someone can be subjected to solitary confinement.

While much has been written about the over-reliance on solitary confinement in prisons and jails, little is known about its use in the US immigration detention system. Despite the fact that almost all of the 33,400 detainees held in this system each night are housed in prison and jail-like settings, immigration detention is not supposed to be punitive. In other words, immigration detainees are not held as punishment for committing a crime, but rather to ensure that they comply with the government’s decision about whether they will be allowed to remain in the US.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that members of certain populations, such as LGBT detainees and gang members, are routinely separated from the general population in immigration detention facilities for both protective and punitive reasons. But US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency charged with overseeing the detention of immigrants, does not keep track of or even ask for statistics on the use of solitary confinement in the detention facilities run by its contractors. Without even this basic level of oversight, it is difficult to gauge the pervasiveness of this practice in our nation’s sprawling network of immigration detention facilities. But any use of solitary confinement whatsoever in a non-punitive detention system is troubling. ICE should commit to tracking the use of solitary confinement among its contractors and implementing binding regulations that strictly limit its use to only those very few cases where it is absolutely necessary to ensure safety within a detention center.

Places: United States