After a harrowing New York Times report exposed how hundreds of non-violent immigrants are being held in solitary confinement, the Department of Homeland Security vowed to review the practice in March. Six months later, immigration officials have released new rules restricting the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers.
Solitary confinement is supposed to be a last-ditch measure to separate dangerous individuals from the general public. However, the Times’ investigation found rampant abuse of the practice. At least 300 immigrants are held in small cells for 15 to 75 days, well past the point doctors say can cause severe mental harm. Solitary confinement for long periods of time can trigger suicidal thoughts, self-harm, hallucinations, and permanent trauma. These detainees are only allowed outside for one hour a day, making it nearly impossible for them to be in touch with family or attorneys.
The new rules limit confinement to a maximum of two weeks, with any longer period needing the approval of higher authorities first. After that, an additional review is required for every 30 days the immigrant is kept confined.
Before now, official reports did not ask why an individual was confined. Estimates suggest about two-thirds of confined individuals were being punished for talking back to guards or breaking rules — a relatively common occurrence given many detainees’ limited understanding of English or legal proceedings. The new policy calls for rigid monitoring and reporting to federal officials for every case of solitary confinement.
The policy also seeks to protect mentally ill, disabled and LGBT detainees, whom guards sometimes put in solitary confinement because they are supposedly in danger from the general jail population. Even children have been isolated for their protection. Now, these vulnerable individuals can only be put in solitary if they request it.
Solitary confinement of immigrants is especially egregious because, far from posing a danger to others, they are being detained to await civil deportation proceedings. However, solitary confinement plagues the criminal justice system as well. California prisoners launched a hunger strike this summer to protest the common practice of indefinite solitary confinement, which can stretch on for decades. The hunger strike ended after almost two months, but thousands of inmates — including children — continue to be held in total physical and social isolation.