Solitary confinement in immigration detention centers across the nation is often overused and arbitrarily applied. According to data obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center, as many as 300 immigrants, or about 1% of all detainees in the 50 largest facilities in the country, are confined to small cells on any given day, even though many pose no security risk. In many cases, they’re held there for 23 hours each day without a break, often for weeks.
The use of solitary confinement is troubling enough in regular state and federal prisons, where inmates held in such conditions for prolonged periods are at risk for severe mental illness and suicide, according to medical experts. But its use in immigration facilities is even more alarming because those detainees aren’t serving criminal sentences but are awaiting civil deportation hearings.
Moreover, prolonged solitary confinement not only puts detainees’ health in jeopardy but undermines their ability to fight their cases. Access to telephones and contact with attorneys are often severely restricted because detainees are allowed to spend just one hour each day outside their cells. That is unfair and a violation of basic human rights.
Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department would review its policy on solitary confinement. Officials have said that it is used only when detainees have broken the rules, pose a danger to others or request protective custody (as gay and transgender immigrants sometimes do). But solitary should not be used as a punishment for such infractions as talking back to guards; it’s too cruel. And if detainees need to be protected from others in the system, surely there’s a better way than locking them up, alone, for weeks at a time, in a manner that puts their mental health at risk.
The Obama administration currently detains about 34,000 legal and undocumented immigrants in a sprawling nationwide network of 250 jails and privately run facilities. If the federal government is to continue to hold so many people before trial, it has an obligation to ensure that they are treated humanely.