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Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in the US Detention System

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April 2013

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Solitary confinement is a generic term used to describe a form of segregation or isolation in which people are held in total or near-total isolation. People in solitary confinement are generally held in small cells for 23 hours a day and rarely have contact with other people. Solitary confinement has historically been used to control and discipline detainees in a variety of settings, including federal and state prisons, local jails, and immigration and national security detention facilities. Unlike incarcerated prisoners, immigration and national security detainees are held not as punishment for a crime but as a preventive measure. Indeed, it is unlikely that these detainees will ever be charged with a crime.

For these people, solitary confinement then becomes entirely punitive, with dire consequences for their mental and physical health. Immigration and national security detainees are particularly likely to be held in isolation for prolonged periods because their precarious legal status makes them less able to challenge their conditions of confinement, including placement in isolation.

A review of the medical literature on solitary confinement provides convincing evidence that isolation has severe psychological and physical effects. These effects are exacerbated if the person has previously been subject to torture and abuse, as is often the case with many immigration and national security detainees.

Even relatively short periods in solitary confinement can cause severe and lasting physiological and psychological harm. Moreover, in many cases, the resulting harm rises to the level of torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, in violation of domestic and international law. The unequivocal position of Physicians for Human Rights is that solitary confinement should not be used at all in immigration and national security detention.

>> Read the Executive Summary (pdf)

>> Read the Report (pdf)

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