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Bloggings: Solitary Confinement of Immigrant Detainees, by: Danielle L. C. Beach-Oswald

Rating: 3 votes, 5.00 average.

Solitary confinement is one of the most severe punishments that
can be levied against a prisoner or detainee.  Yet "any given day," according to a
recent article
in the New York Times,
approximately 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers across the country. Of those
held in solitary, the Times
continues, "Nearly half
are isolated for 15 days or more, the point at which psychiatric experts say
they are at risk for severe mental harm, with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days."  (Emphasis added.)  While the conditions of confinement vary,
detainees facing solitary confinement have reported to being locked up alone
for 22-23 hours a day, in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells.  The reasons given for detainees' isolation range
from a belief that they pose a threat to other detainees, to minor
"disciplinary infractions," to protection from potential violence by other
inmates. 


Based
on oral accounts from prisoners, it seems that in many cases the practice of solitary
confinement is unwarranted, excessive, and may amount to torture.  Because of the lack of a independent,
transparent monitoring system for the detention of immigrants, there are
serious questions regarding accountability for detainee abuse.  The reported effects of solitary
confinement include: post-traumatic
stress disorder, paranoia, depression, difficulty sleeping, and
nightmares.  In addition, according to
the Times, detainees in solitary
often suffer mental breakdowns that can include self-mutilation and even
suicide as a result of prisoners' deprivation of meaningful human contacts with
others.  Such conditions are likely to be
especially traumatic for immigrants, especially victims of human trafficking
and detainee asylum-seekers who have already suffered or fear future torture
from authorities in their countries of origin.  The immigrant population is in many ways the
most vulnerable to abuse, especially because they often have family members who
are illegal and afraid to complain or seek assistance.  Moreover, unlike criminal detainees,
immigrants do not have a right to free legal counsel, and many detainees cannot
afford legal assistance. 


According
to a September 2012 report
by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Physicians for Human Rights
(PHR), part of the problem with respect to immigrant detainees stems from the
fact that, "Most immigration detention centers are not dedicated facilities,
meaning they hold both immigrants and criminally sentenced individuals,"
leading detention center officials to rely on "local correctional policies"
regardless of whether a detainee is considered dangerous or has been accused of
any crime.  Describing the use of
solitary confinement as "often arbitrarily applied, significantly overused,
harmful to detainees' health, and inadequately monitored," the NIJC and PHR
report note that detainees frequently have little to no access to legal counsel
or their families and often do not speak English, leaving them few if any means
by which to appeal their treatment.


Because
many immigrant detainees are being held under administrative and not criminal justifications,
it is reasonable to question the need for many immigrant detainees to be held
in detention centers at all.  Because
such immigrants are being held under civil and not criminal charges, they are
not supposed to be punished, yet they languish in prisons for indefinite
amounts of time, isolated from family members or legal counsel.  The "supervised"
release of hundreds of "low-risk" immigrant detainees due to budget
cutbacks resulting from the federal sequester, for example, has raised the
question in
some quarters
of whether those individuals' detentions were necessary or
justified to begin with.  In this
context, the widespread use of detention is itself frequently unnecessary,
inhumane, and expensive, especially because of the availability of other reliable,
affordable, and compassionate alternatives.  Key recommendations of the NIJC-PHR report,
for example, include a call on Congress to prohibit solitary confinement of
immigrant detainees as well as "end" or strictly curtail "mandatory detention
laws."


As
the Obama administration has increased enforcement, the immigration detention
population has swelled; it has increased by nearly 85 percent since 2005.  Once detained, there is no set date of
release and detainees are transferred across state lines, often leaving family
members without access to their loved ones. 


Encouragingly,
the renewed focus on solitary confinement has drawn the attention of Homeland
Secretary Janet Napolitano, who
affirmed
earlier this week that "solitary confinement should be the
exception, not the rule" and stated that she planned to undertake a review of
the process.  As of today, it remains
unclear when such a review will take place or when any changes will be made in
the existing scheme of solitary confinement and detention of immigrants.  While Congress has legitimate goals of
increasing enforcement of its immigration laws, such prioritizes should no
longer curtail the rights of illegal immigrants facing detention. 

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