‘Torture’: Whistleblower group urges Biden admin to put a stop to ICE’s use of solitary confinement

‘Torture’: Whistleblower group urges Biden admin to put a stop to ICE’s use of solitary confinement

A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) watchdog report last month said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was abusing detained immigrants through the use of solitary confinement, but we already knew that.

This same watchdog last year found that ICE had held immigrants in solitary, which is torture, for months at a time. The year before that, years’ worth of government records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed officials had been intentionally punishing particularly vulnerable detained immigrants with solitary confinement. The use of solitary confinement needs to end now, a nonprofit whistleblower protection agency tells DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Government Accountability Project (GAP) said Monday that its client, former DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) Policy Adviser Ellen Gallagher, “sounded the alarm bells internally around solitary confinement numerous times starting in 2014.” GAP said that Mayorkas was then-deputy DHS secretary under the Obama administration. But her “pleas for oversight were largely met with silence until she made her whistleblowing public in 2019.”

“Now, seven years after the department was made aware of ICE’s systematic violation of segregation policies, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) finally completed a systemic audit and on October 13, 2021, issued a report that validated Ms. Gallagher’s disclosures, finding failures by ICE to collect, retain and report data about its use of solitary confinement and calling for enhanced oversight of segregation used in ICE detention facilities,” GAP continued.

That report revealed that in 72% of detention files examined by investigators, “no evidence” was found that officials considered some other alternative for immigrants they threw into solitary confinement. 

“Even more alarming, detention facilities failed to consider alternatives to solitary in two-thirds of cases involving individuals with special vulnerabilities, like members of the LGBTQ community and people who experience mental illness,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said last month. “For those individuals, ICE policy explicitly states that solitary confinement may be used only as a last resort.”

NBC News reported in 2019 that the thousands of FOIA records received by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists spanning 2012 to 2017 had also revealed officials targeted the most vulnerable, including transgender people and people with mental illness. The report said that thousands of immigrants overall were thrown into solitary for extended periods of time, many “for reasons that have nothing to do with violating any rules,” NBC News said at the time.

“While the OIG report revealed many of ICE’s shortcomings, there is no way of knowing how many and to what extent immigrants were subjected to solitary confinement over the past seven years in ICE detention,” GAP said. The group made the plea as Mayorkas appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday for a “Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security” hearing.

That hearing has been unfortunately but unsurprisingly rife with Republicans like Texas Sen. John Cornyn feigning faux concern over the U.S. treatment of migrants when they really don’t care at all, because I’m guessing zero is the number of times he’ll support an end to the abuses described by investigators and advocates. But feel free to prove us wrong, John.

“ICE and its contractors’ abuse of solitary confinement, especially against those with mental illness, has led to record levels of death by suicide in recent years,” the ACLU continued. The group noted the deaths of Jean Jimenez-Joseph and Efrain De La Rosa. “Both men had histories of severe schizophrenia and psychosis, which was known to ICE, but jail officials sent them to solitary confinement anyway.” They’d been held at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, “notorious for abuse, medical neglect, and in-custody deaths,” Prism’s Tina Vasquez reported earlier this year.

“We applaud the DHS Inspector General’s report which provides a necessary, though delayed, data-informed survey of the use of solitary confinement within the ICE detention system,” said Dana Gold, GAP senior counsel and attorney for Gallagher. “Secretary Mayorkas—then, as now—is on notice of the improper and excessive use of solitary confinement. What is needed at this moment is accountability for seven years of failed oversight that allowed torture to occur across the ICE detention system in literally unverifiable numbers.”

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