Hundreds of immigrants are placed in solitary confinement each week in the detention centers where they are facing deportation, federal records show. Some remain in isolation for weeks or months at a time.
At the Stewart Detention Center south of Atlanta, for example, about 20 detainees are isolated in an average week, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement records from 2012. Nationwide, the weekly average was about 300, according to the data, which covered a period of more than four months.
Nearly half of those placed in isolation were held there for 15 days or longer. Nearly 11 percent were mentally ill.
ICE said it could not immediately provide a requested statistical breakdown on why individuals were placed in isolation. In general, the agency said, most are segregated for disciplinary reasons or to protect them and others from harm.
“More than 60 percent of over 31,000 individuals currently in ICE custody have been convicted of a crime, and sometimes action is necessary for detainee safety or facility security,” ICE said in a prepared statement.
However, several former Stewart detainees said they witnessed immigrants being sent to solitary confinement for minor rules infractions.
Corrections Corporation of America, which operates the Stewart center for ICE, said it abides by federal standards when segregating detainees. The cost to taxpayers is the same, regardless of how inmates are kept.
Critics say that, regardless of past criminal convictions, it is inappropriate to isolate people who are being detained for immigration violations, which are civil offenses. Immigrants who have committed crimes are transferred to detention centers only after they complete their criminal sentences in jails or prisons.
Human rights advocates also worry about the psychological harm solitary confinement may do to detainees, some of whom have been victims of extortion, kidnapping and sex trafficking.
Physicians for Human Rights, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit human rights group, issued a report this month, saying solitary confinement can cause psychological harm and urging Congress to prohibit it in immigration detention centers.
In 2011, a United Nations expert on torture called on all countries to ban solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, citing studies that say “lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.”
But activists for stronger immigration controls said many immigrants slated for deportation have been convicted of serious crimes and some may be affiliated with violent immigrant gangs. They said detention center operators must have the ability to use segregation as needed to maintain safety and security.
“It is common sense for ICE to keep many illegal aliens who are subject to deportation in solitary cells,” said Phil Kent, a member of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board and the spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control.
Pedro Guzman Perez said he talked his way out of being put in solitary confinement in 2010 in the Stewart Detention Center, a sprawling ICE facility in rural Stewart County. He suspected authorities wanted to put him in “the hole” after overhearing him talk to a reporter over the telephone about contemplating suicide.
Perez, who said he spent more than a year at Stewart before being freed, worried he would not be able to call his family in solitary confinement. ICE’s detention standards require telephone access, though that access may be restricted for disciplinary reasons.
“That was my worst nightmare, not being able to talk to Emily, my wife, and my son. That is basically what kept me sane,” said Perez, who was illegally brought to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was a child and is now a legal permanent resident living in Durham, NC.
In its statement, ICE said that less than 1 percent of its more than 33,000 detainees are placed in solitary confinement, and that most are isolated for only a few days at a time. Some detainees request to be separated for their own protection, the statement added.
The agency said it started developing new detention standards in recent years that put stricter limits on when solitary confinement may be used. Those standards say healthcare professionals must assess everyone placed in isolation at least once a day.
The standards also require giving these immigrants access to certain things: a bed, three meals a day, the commissary, the library, religious guidance, recreation and opportunities to meet with their families and attorneys. Those segregated for disciplinary reasons may be denied other privileges: reading materials, television and vending machine purchases.
The National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based immigrant rights group, obtained ICE’s records on solitary confinement through the Freedom of Information Act. The New York Times first reported on the contents of those records last month.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed its own FOIA request with ICE this month, seeking more information about how many immigrants have been placed in solitary confinement in Georgia, for what reasons and for how long.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on solitary confinement, said he was troubled after reviewing ICE’s records. Solitary confinement, he said, may cause severe psychological damage, including anxiety, paranoia, depression, memory problems and suicide.
“These people are basically being traumatized by their stay in solitary,” said Kupers, who teaches at The Wright Institute, a Berkeley, Calif.-based graduate psychology school. “This is shameful that we are putting so many people in solitary.”
But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, took aim at ICE’s critics.
“These are the same people who would be calling these guys on the carpet if there was a dangerous individual that they knew about who went on to harm other people in the facility, and they did nothing about it,” he said.
ICE critics have also raised concerns about the agency’s practice of putting gay and trans-gender detainees in solitary confinement. ICE said it does this — sometimes at the individual’s request — to protect them from other detainees who have intimidated or threatened to harm them.
Raquel Gomez is among those who have been placed in solitary confinement in ICE detention centers. A trans-gender immigrant, she illegally entered the U.S. from Mexico in 2000 to flee physical and sexual abuse in her native country. She said authorities placed her in solitary confinement for months in detention centers in Illinois and Wisconsin because she is trans-gender.
Gomez, who was convicted of crimes in the U.S. after, by her account, being forced into prostitution, applied for asylum. It was denied on technical grounds, but the government ultimately freed her from detention and has decided to not deport her. Gomez wept as she spoke in Spanish about the depression and suicidal thoughts she said arose from her solitary confinement.
“I felt a lot of stress and desperation,” she said through an interpreter, “and also I had a lot of nightmares — and I still have a lot of nightmares — that I am being held in segregation.”