Congress is not the only government body that can make important and needed changes in our immigration system. Other arms of the government have recently stepped up to address inhumane immigration practices. In this National Action Alert, I’d like to update you on a new directive issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
On September 4, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a new directive that will potentially improve federal oversight of the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention facilities. Because ICE, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, detains approximately 34,000 migrants and refugees each day, clear guidance on when and how solitary confinement is to be used in immigration detention facilities is critical. The new policy substantially increases ICE’s monitoring of the use of solitary confinement and sets important limits on the way it is used, especially for vulnerable populations such as individuals with mental disabilities and victims of sexual assault.
The story of Isatu Jollah’s experience in immigration detention illustrates how even extremely vulnerable individuals have been placed in solitary confinement. Isatu grew up in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war. When she was 12 years old, she was raped by rebel soldiers and separated from her mother. Isatu later suffered female genital mutilation and was severely punished when she refused to perform the practice on other young women. Isatu fled to the United States, where upon expressing her intention to apply for asylum at the airport, she was detained by immigration authorities and sent to York County Prison in Pennsylvania. While in immigration detention, her post-traumatic stress disorder caused her attacks of anxiety and she was isolated in solitary confinement.
The use of solitary confinement has been determined by mental health experts to be harmful. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has called for an absolute prohibition on prolonged solitary confinement as harmful psychological consequences may be irreversible. Given the grave effects of solitary confinement, any use of this practice requires strong accountability measurements. The new ICE directive contains promising provisions that require appropriate review and oversight of decisions to retain detainees in solitary confinement for over 14 days. It also requires facilities to report on the use of solitary confinement for members of vulnerable populations, such as those with medical or mental issues and disabilities, those who may be at risk of harm due to sexual orientation or gender identity, or victims of sexual assault.
While this directive represents a large step forward in establishing more humane detention practices, the key lies in its enforcement. LIRS will continue to monitor how it is implemented in the months ahead.
For more information on U.S. immigration detention policy and alternatives to detention, see the 2011 LIRS report Unlocking Liberty. Thank you, as always, for following these important issues and for being a champion for immigrants and refugees.