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Agencies review use of solitary confinement

Posted: April 10, 2013 | Tags: immigration

The government is reviewing solitary practices in immmigration detention centers around the country.

“The Department’s approach is that it should be used as last resort and for as short as time as possible,” said Margo Schlanger, counsel to Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “Now, about 1 percent of population is in detention, and that is very low compared to other prisons and jails,” she added.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop's Catherine Rentz spent months examining the use of solitary in detention. Her story, published in the New York Times and on the Workshop's site on March 24, 2013, was based on new government data, which showed that about 300 immigrant detainees are in solitary in the top centers around the country while they wait for a finding of their legal status. Nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more, the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm, with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days.

While the conditions of confinement vary, the Workshop found that detainees in solitary are routinely kept alone for 22 to 23 hours per day, sometimes in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells, according to interviews with current and former detainees and a review of case records involving more than three dozen immigrants since 2010. Detainees are being held on civil, not criminal, charges. As such, they are not supposed to be punished; they are confined to ensure that they appear for administrative hearings.

Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials addressed concerns about solitary confinement at "Dialogues on Detention," a conference held Monday by Human Rights First in Washington.

Rentz reports that Gary Mead, executive associate director of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, and Schlanger, said that DHS and ICE are working on a joint review of solitary practices across the system. Schlanger said that ICE has robust standards governing solitary confinement practices and the review will determine whether its policies are being followed by the detention facilities.

Mead said most of the "segregated" detainees, as ICE terms them, have criminal backgrounds and are there for disciplinary purposes. 

Mead, who attracted much attention over the past month for releasing more than 2,000 detainees because of looming budget cuts, said that if it was possible to remove the population without detention, “that would be fine for us.” He added, "Detention is not something we do because we like it,” and said ICE detains individuals largely because of mandatory detention laws and because of priorities to detain those with prior criminal convictions.

There was much debate at the conference about whether alternatives, such as ankle bracelets, could achieve similar immigration enforcement goals as detention in more cost effective and humane ways. Mead said it’s possible that upcoming reform could change the makeup of who is in detention. A congressional mandate requires ICE to maintain an average of 34,000 detention beds.



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