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For Immediate Release

Abolish Solitary Confinement in Immigration and National Security Facilities, PHR Urges

Media Contact

Vesna Jaksic Lowe, MS

Media Relations Manager, New York
Tel: 917-679-0110

Cambridge, MA - 04/04/2013

Thousands of people awaiting immigration hearings in the US detention system are routinely held in solitary confinement, which can cause serious and lasting psychological and physiological harm, PHR says in a new report.

“The medical evidence shows indisputably that even relatively short periods in solitary confinement can cause irreversible damage , especially to vulnerable people,” said Christy Fujio, director of PHR’s Asylum Program and an author of the report. “Yet this soul-crushing punishment, which in some cases constitutes torture, is routinely inflicted even on people who have not been charged with any crimes.”

The report, “Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in the US Detention System,” documents the policies and regulations regarding that practice in more than a dozen US detention facilities selected to represent the range of institutions that house immigration detainees. It also includes information gleaned from public documents about procedures at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, where people suspected of involvement in terrorism have been indefinitely detained for years.

The report finds that solitary confinement in both types of institutions is used arbitrarily and excessively, often in contravention of regulations, and, in most cases, with little regard for the negative health consequences on the detainees. Those include panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, self-harm, sleep disturbances, weight loss, deteriorating eyesight, and difficulty with concentration and memory.

“In both immigration and national security settings, detainees are mostly non-US citizens with little knowledge of their rights and with limited or no access to legal counsel,” Fujio said. “Many of them are held in solitary confinement for committing minor infractions of facility rules or for the convenience of the security personnel. The routine abuse of this practice reflects an abdication by federal, state, and local governments of their moral and legal responsibility to treat all those in their custody humanely and in conformance with international prohibitions against torture and ill treatment.”

PHR urges Congress to abolish solitary confinement outright for both immigration and national security detainees. Until that is done, PHR also recommends intermediate steps to minimize harm to detainees:

  • Solitary confinement should be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort for as brief a period as possible.
  • Solitary confinement should never be used to control or punish mentally ill detainees.
  • Solitary confinement must never last more than nine days, absent a compelling threat to safety or security.
  • Detainees’ medical and mental health must be examined by qualified professionals at the initiation of solitary confinement and daily thereafter. 

“For more than a century, prison and medical experts have known that solitary confinement causes severe psychological damage,” Fujio said. “The time is long overdue for practices inside US detention facilities to be brought into line with scientific knowledge and international law.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an independent organization that uses medicine and science to stop mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. We are supported by the expertise and passion of health professionals and concerned citizens alike.

Since 1986, PHR has conducted investigations in more than 40 countries around the world, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, the United States, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe.

  • 1986 — Led investigations of torture in Chile gaining freedom for heroic doctors there
  • 1988 — First to document the Iraqi use of chemical weapons on Kurds providing               evidence for prosecution of war criminals
  • 1996 — Exhumed mass graves in the Balkans and Rwanda to provide evidence for               International Criminal Tribunals
  • 1997 — Shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
  • 2003 — Warned US Policymakers on health and human rights conditions prior to and               during the invasion of Iraq
  • 2004 — Documented genocide and sexual violence in Darfur in support of international               prosecutions
  • 2010 — Investigated the epidemic of violence spread by Burma’s military junta
  • 2011 — Championed the principle of noninterference with medical services in times of               armed conflict and civil unrest during the Arab Spring
  • 2012 — Trained doctors, lawyers, police, and judges in the Democratic Republic of the               Congo, Kenya, and Syria on the proper collection of evidence in sexual               violence cases
  • 2013 — Won first prize in the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention with MediCapt, our               mobile app that documents evidence of torture and sexual violence

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