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Victims of torture? Immigrants complain of lengthy punishment in solitary confinement cells

An investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reveals that between 2012 and 2017 almost 8,500 immigrants were confined in isolation cells at detention centers run by ICE. In more than half of those cases the migrants were from Mexico and Central America. The LGBT community has been hit hardest by this practice, which lawyers and human rights advocates are seeking to abolish.
21 May 2019 – 02:57 PM EDT

"Don't hang up. Now, I have lots to say, I want to talk. It's horrible in here. I'm very lonely. For a while nobody came to check on me, nobody. They throw you in here, 'The hole,' and you know what's worst? That you don't exist, nobody sees you or hears you and that's how it is day after day. They can't do this to people. I'm desperate…"

Five phone calls with Univision ended like this. Dulce Rivera's solitary confinement cell in El Paso, Texas, had a small window through which a tray of food was passed three times a day. When someone put money in her account, she could also get access to a telephone headset to connect with the outside world.

There were only two regular opportunities to leave her cell: "yard time," when she could get some sun in a small patio for an hour or less, and visits to the shower.

Rivera is one of thousands of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States who while they await the resolution of their cases face prolonged confinements and isolation inside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.

A database compiled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reveals that immigrants like Rivera held in ICE detention centers are victims of excessive use of isolation, inflicting a high toll on their mental health, in what many human rights groups consider an act of torture that should be abolished.

The detainees are not there because they committed a crime or are awaiting trial. Rather, they are seeking protection in the United States and awaiting the outcome of their asylum cases, or deportations hearings.

Between 2012 and 2017, 8,448 cases were recorded. In more than half of those cases, the migrants were from Mexico and Central America. The data is based on requests for information from ICE and was obtained by the ICIJ under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The incidents were classified under different reasons of solitary confinement, ranging from a violation of disciplinary rules to the mental condition of a detainee.

For example, starting a hunger strike can be cause for confinement, as well as attempted suicide.

Although the average length of stay in isolation is 20 days, there are cases that exceed three months and up to more than a year, such as Rivera. The data found that the LGBT community was especially hard hit.

The confinement cells are known as the 'SHU' (Special Housing Unit), also known as 'the hole', or 'the box.'

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Complaints of abuse and solitary confinement of migrants in U.S. custody

The data

The ICIJ data revealed that (between 2012 and 2017):

- 5,115 incidents of people in confinement for more than 15 days (more than half of the 8,488 incident reports). There were 187 cases in which a detainee was held in solitary confinement for more than six months. In 32 of these cases, the detainee was confined for a year or more.

- Countries of citizenship with the highest number of incidents of solitary confinement: Mexico (2,678 incidents), El Salvador (997), Honduras (664), Guatemala (444), Jamaica (264).

- In 42% of cases, discipline was cited as the reason to place a detainee in isolation.

- There were 182 incidents that resulted from a hunger strike.

- According to the data, almost a third of the incidents involved detainees who were mentally ill.

How US immigration authorities use solitary confinement

Segregation as torture

"It is important that we consider isolation as a form of mental torture or at least cruel, inhuman and degrading mental and non-physical treatment," says Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. "Solitary confinement indefinite or prolonged for more than 15 days must also be subject to an absolute ban," he warned as far back as 2011.

Méndez recalls that one of the first cases he heard as a U.N. rapporteur on torture in 2010 and 2011 involved isolation in immigration detention centers. "I suddenly found that the isolation, which had been declared inhumane in the 19th century, was suddenly reappearing, especially in the United States in the last 30 or 40 years," he said.

In 2011 he presented a report to the U.N. General Assembly on solitary confinement or isolation where he proposed certain measures, including a ban on indefinite or prolonged isolation.

At the same time he proposed that any period that lasted longer than 15 days should be considered prolonged, based on the information from scientific and psychiatric literature that indicates isolation that lasts any longer can begin to alter a person's mind. He also proposed that the isolation of certain categories of detainees, such as children, people with mental disabilities and pregnant women, for even a few hours, should be banned.

These measures and prohibitions were eventually incorporated into the 'United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners', also known as the 'Nelson Mandela Rules', in 2015.

DHS Whistleblower Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher, former policy advisor at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), began to express her concern about the use of segregation by ICE in February 2014. Her documented complaints, requests for information and recommendations to DHS, are part of the basis for the ICIJ investigation.

In September 2014, Gallagher complained to DHS that CRCL was failing to comply with its authority to investigate ICE for not complying with regulations regarding detainee segregation.

Gallagher's concerns revolved around what she perceived to be a violation of policies and procedures. According to her expert opinion, a review of the use and abuse of solitary confinement in asylum cases was needed, in large part because these cases often involved immigrants with special vulnerabilities, sometimes psychological in nature.

"I was surprised that it was used at all (isolation). Never in all the years that I worked in the area of immigration with the government (19 years), I thought it would be permissible to put a civilian detainee in solitary confinement as a way," she said. "I cannot understand why in the United States of America we would be allowed to put civilian detainees in solitary confinement as form of punishment," she added.

"When I was in jail I spent about 30 days in segregation due to disciplinary punishment and, believe me, in immigrant detention centers it's much worse, ... much worse," recalls Rivera.

Gallagher said she was alarmed by documents showing that psychologically ill immigrants were held in isolation for things like attempting suicide, being victims of a physical assault, and, in one case, for unauthorized possession of a green pepper.

In another case, which was reported by Gallagher to DHD, an individual tried to hurt himself by jumping from the top of his bunk onto a concrete floor. He also took a towel and tried to strangle himself. "He was sentenced to 15 days of solitary, disciplinary confinement, and was considered a threat to the facility,” she said.

In an interview for this project, Gallagher highlighted other cases that caught her attention, such as a detainee placed in confinement for throwing a kiss from a distance to an officer and another psychologically ill detainee who threw his feces at a custodian. The latter was given more than 300 days of punishment in the SHU.

In the files she reviewed of detainees placed in segregation, Gallagher says that the consideration of alternatives to segregation was often lacking, even in cases where it was required by ICE.

"I was in cell number 7 and from there I could see a detainee in cell number 2 who was going in circles all over the place, like a wolf trying to find a way out, I saw how his mental health was deteriorating. What came to my mind was that he was experiencing difficult moments just as I lived them ... " Rivera says.

ICE's response to complaints.

The use of restrictive housing in immigrant detention centers is extremely rare, but is sometimes necessary to ensure the safety of personnel and people in a facility, ICE told the ICIJ.

"The Immigration and Customs Enforcement service (ICE) is firmly committed to the safety and well-being of all those in its custody," it said in a statement.

ICE justified the use of the SHU "for administrative and disciplinary reasons," as well as to protect detainees, staff, contractors and volunteers.

In 2013, ICE issued a 'Segregation Directive' entitled 'Review of the use of segregation for detainees of ICE' which required the agency to report, review and supervise each decision to place detainees in housing segregation for more than 14 days, and required notification and immediate review of isolations when there are major concerns based on the health of the detainee, or other factors.

ICE assured that it provided "several levels of supervision to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe and humane environments and in adequate conditions of confinement."

Asked about the placing of LGBT persons in segregation, ICE stated that "it should be used only as a last resort ... when there are no other accommodation options ... to ensure the safety of the detainee , other detainees, personnel of the installation and / or the good order of the installation.”

On the use of these segregation cells for people with mental illnesses or possible suicides, ICE explained that there are rules that evaluate each case, including supervising those who have attempted suicide or may attempt to take their own lives.

For its part, the Office of National Security (DHS) refrained from giving details of the formal complaints by Gallagher and the status of the investigations that her complaints allegedly triggered.

"They put you on 'Suicide Watch,' they take off your clothes and make you put on a green suit, that horrible 'turtle suit', sleeveless, so uncomfortable, you lie down in that small bed, you hug yourself because of the cold and you're looking at the ceiling ... I don't know why they're doing all that to you ... That makes you worse," says Rivera, grabbing her arms and looking up to simulate what she experienced.

ICE on the Rivera case

"In June 2018, Rivera was sanctioned to 30 days of disciplinary segregation for disobeying an official, making sexual proposals and threats, for interfering with the security and order of the center ...," ICE said.

Rivera, who is transgender, received so many solitary confinements that she tried to commit suicide by hanging herself with a sheet in her cell while in ICE detention.

ICE said that after that episode she was placed under observation as a medical precaution and she then injured her knees by banging them against the cell door.

In July 2018, ICE said Rivera was asked if she wanted to leave the segregation but refused to return to the general population. The next month, ICE said it received a letter from Rivera requesting she allowed to stay with family in El Paso. (Texas).

Rivera confirmed she was offered to go back to the general population, but requested she be kept away from the males and be with the LGBT community who had a separate space at the Cibola center where she was being held. "I told them that they had to take me where I belong because I have rights and they left me there locked up again," she said.

"I do not remember asking for anything, I just asked to be taken out of the SHU, my mind was not good anymore," she added, pointing out that she has no family in El Paso, just some friends.