Whistleblower & Investigation Reveals Widespread Use Of Abusive Solitary Confinement In Refugee Detentions

“This is a practice that exposes detainees to real psychological and physiological harm.”

By Spencer WoodmanMaryam SalehHannah Rappleye & Karrie Kehoe
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (5/20/19)

DULCE RIVERA LIVED for the one hour a day she was allowed outside, to pace alone on a patch of concrete encased in metal fencing.

They called it “the yard,” but it was really a metal cage. Still, it was far better than the misery she endured the other 23 hours a day, locked alone in a cell with no one to talk to and nothing to distract her from her increasingly dark thoughts.

Rivera, a 36-year-old transgender woman from Honduras and a longtime U.S. resident, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017. She was placed in the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, and moved into solitary confinement in May 2018 for harassing other detainees, according to facility records.

“The records show dozens of cases of detainees placed in solitary confinement solely due to a disability, many simply because they needed a wheelchair, cane, crutches, or some other aid. One detainee from Guatemala was put in isolation for more than two months only because he had a prosthetic leg.”

The cell had bare walls, adorned only with a few crude metal necessities: a table, sink, and toilet.

“You never know what day it is, what time it is,” Rivera said. “Sometimes you never see the sun.”

On June 20, nearly four weeks after she was placed in isolation, guards told her that she wouldn’t be allowed to go to the yard. Two days later, she fashioned a noose from a torn blanket and hanged herself from a ceiling vent.

A passing guard cut her down before she suffocated, but her ordeal wasn’t over. After a trip to the hospital, immigration officials led Rivera to a different solitary confinement cell — this one with huge block letters across the door reading “SUICIDE SAFE.”

Rivera would spend most of the next year in isolation, in the same conditions that she blames for her mental breakdown.

Inhuman and degrading

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has said that solitary confinement should be banned except in “very exceptional circumstances” and that isolation for more than 15 days constitutes “inhuman and degrading treatment.” People with mental illnesses should never be put in isolation, the rapporteur said.

ICE’s own directives say that isolating detainees — who under federal law aren’t considered prisoners and aren’t held for punitive reasons — is “a serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives.”

An investigation by The Intercept and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has found that ICE uses isolation as a go-to tool, rather than a last resort, to manage and punish even the most vulnerable detainees for weeks and months at a time. …

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(Commoner Call art by Mark L. Taylor, 2017. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to www.thecommonercall.org )