Protecting Civil and Human Rights

ICE Puts Detainees with Mental Illnesses “At Risk” in Solitary Confinement

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents may be putting detainees with mental illnesses “at risk of harm” by not reporting to ICE headquarters when they place these detainees in solitary confinement, according to a government investigation.

These detainees are individuals accused of violating U.S. immigration law and are in detention waiting to have their cases heard in the immigration court system. Most are held on civil charges and have not been accused of violating criminal laws.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (IG) found that agents at ICE field offices fail to consistently and promptly report when detainees with mental illnesses are put into “segregation,” a form of solitary confinement.

The investigation also showed that, because field offices keep spotty records on segregation, it’s unclear if the offices are conducting required reviews “to determine whether the continued segregation is warranted.” The agents are supposed to conduct such reviews no later than 72 hours after a detainee is placed in segregation. They are also required to conduct follow-up reviews at 14 days, 30 days, and every additional 30 days after a detainee is placed in segregation. The reviews are meant to “mitigate the risk of deteriorating detainees’ mental health,” according to the investigation.

ICE field office agents do not work in the detention centers where individuals suspected of violating immigration laws are held. However, they are responsible for overseeing detention centers and reporting issues to ICE headquarters. There are 24 ICE field offices, and approximately 200 detention centers in the United States, according to ICE. The majority of detention centers are operated by contracted companies, as the Project On Government Oversight previously reported.

“Placing detainees with mental health conditions in segregation is a serious step that requires careful review and oversight to ensure it is necessary, protects staff and detainees, and is in detainees’ best interest,” the IG office said.

“Without information from required reviews to help assess and make decisions about segregation, ICE may be missing opportunities to use alternatives that may be better for those with mental health conditions,” according to the IG.

By contrast, the investigation found that staff at ICE detention centers follow ICE protocol when reporting on placing detainees with mental illnesses in solitary confinement. However, the reporting from staff doesn’t make its way to ICE headquarters.

According to Tara Tidwell Cullen of the National Immigrant Justice Center, the IG report—particularly its assessment of ICE detention center staff—is a “sanitized” account of solitary confinement in ICE detention centers.

“We frequently hear from immigrants who are placed in solitary as a form of ‘protection’ because they are mentally ill, or as punishment for minor perceived infractions, such as sharing commissary food with another person, or having a sugar packet in their pocket,” Tidwell Cullen told POGO.

As POGO reported last month, many detainees allege in multiple lawsuits that staff at ICE detention centers use segregation to punish detainees who decline to participate in a voluntary work program.

According to Tidwell Cullen, “[The IG investigation’s methodology], without any apparent interaction with individuals who have spent time in solitary in ICE custody, does not constitute an adequate investigation to determine whether ICE and its contracted facilities are upholding the agency’s own standards of care.”