Congress weighing limits on solitary confinement

Federal immigration authorities in Georgia and across the nation would face stringent new limits on who they could place in solitary confinement and for how long under a new measure pending in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., announced Monday he had filed the measure as a proposed amendment to the 844-page immigration overhaul bill now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials place about 300 immigrants in solitary confinement each week on average. At the Stewart Detention Center south of Atlanta, for example, about 20 detainees facing deportation were isolated this way each week on average across more than four months last year, ICE’s records show.

Critics say this is an inappropriate punishment for people accused of immigration violations. They also worry about the psychological harm that could come from prolonged isolation.

An ICE spokesman declined to comment, citing his agency’s policy against commenting on pending legislation. But last month ICE told the AJC that less than 1 percent of its more than 33,000 detainees are placed in solitary confinement and most are isolated this way only for a few days at a time. The federal agency underscored that it detains many convicts and said some detainees request to be separated for protection.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Blumenthal said the prospects are “very good” for his amendment’s adoption. Among other things, his measure would:

• Prohibit ICE from putting people under 18 in solitary confinement.

• Limit when people with mental illnesses may be segregated this way.

• Block ICE from keeping people in solitary confinement for their own protection more than 15 days unless the U.S. Homeland Security secretary determines “any less restrictive alternative is more likely than not to cause greater harm.”

• Give immigrants placed in solitary confinement access to their attorneys on the same basis as other detainees who are not segregated this way.

Blumenthal’s measure is among more than 300 amendments senators have filed for the bipartisan immigration legislation, which would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The Judiciary Committee has adopted 21 amendments so far and is scheduled to consider more this week. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, has said he wants the panel to wrap up its work on the bill by Memorial Day.

Blumenthal, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a prepared statement that his amendment would crack down on the “overuse” of solitary confinement in ICE detention centers. “My amendment would bring accountability, transparency, and due process to the immigration detention system in order to build a system that is consistent with American values,” he said.

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