ICE Forced Hundreds of Immigrants Into Solitary Confinement in Arizona

Solitary cell
Solitary cell Flickr via Matthew Thompson
On Tuesday, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Intercept published an investigation into the U.S. Bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement's habit of going against its own policy by overusing solitary confinement without considering the alternatives.

The Intercept and ICIJ reviewed more than 8,400 reports describing ICE detainees being placed in solitary confinement across the country and found that ICE used long stretches of isolation as a means to punish immigrants for minor offenses like consensual kissing or giving haircuts, and frequently placed hunger strikers, LGBTQ people, and disabled people in solitary.

A Phoenix New Times review of the data published by The Intercept and ICIJ found that ICE has placed detainees in Arizona facilities in solitary confinement 715 times from 2012 to 2017. At least 38 people have been held in solitary confinement for more than 100 days.

The most common reason for isolation was punishment: On 301 occasions, people were placed in solitary confinement in Arizona facilities for disciplinary reasons. On 92 occasions, immigrants in Arizona were isolated because they were considered a "suicide risk."

Two hundred ninety-nine of those placed in solitary confinement in Arizona had mental health problems, according to ICE's own data. Solitary confinement itself can leave people with lasting trauma and mental health problems.

The United Nations has said the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days should be banned, stating that to confine someone for longer than that constitutes torture. More than half of those detained in Arizona (397) were placed in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days.

When detainees are forced into solitary confinement, they are often left in small, windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. The rooms often have only a bed, a toilet, and a sink. Some are constantly lit, making people lose all sense of time and disrupting sleep.

Most of the immigrants were held in isolation at CoreCivic facilities. Of the 715 solitary confinements, 358 occurred in the Eloy Detention Center, run by CoreCivic. Another 158 occurred at Florence Correctional Center, also run by CoreCivic. ICE detainees held in Pinal County Jail were sent to solitary confinement 49 times.

It costs roughly $180 a day to keep someone locked up in the Eloy facility. Following Trump's zero-tolerance family separation policy, the facility housed about 300 mothers who had been separated from their children. At least 15 people died in Eloy Detention Facility from 2003 to 2016, including five suicides.

Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a public affairs officer for ICE, told Phoenix New Times "(ICE) is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody. The use of restrictive housing in ICE detention facilities is exceedingly rare, but at times necessary, to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in a facility. ICE’s policy governing the use of special management units protects detainees, staff, contractors, and volunteers from harm by segregating certain detainees from the general population for both administrative and disciplinary reasons."

Pitts O'Keefe mentioned how ICE's 2013 directive on the use of segregation requires the agency to report and review every decision to place detainees in solitary confinement for a period of more than 14 days. She said, "ICE's policies surrounding special management units were referenced in a 2016 report by the Department of Justice as 'a useful guidepost for other correctional and detention systems.'"

That 2013 directive instructs ICE to carefully consider alternatives before isolating detainees, and urges employees to consider solitary confinement as a last resort. They are supposed to document what alternatives were considered, but a DHS whistleblower who spoke with The Intercept said she "often found no evidence that ICE had actually done this."

MSNBC, which also reviewed the reports, reported on Tuesday that many immigrants had been forced into isolation simply for being gay or disabled.

One Guatemalan immigrant was held in solitary confinement for two months solely because he had a prosthetic leg, The Intercept reported.

The Intercept and ICIJ found immigrants who had been forced into isolation in ICE facilities were "mutilating their genitals, gouging out their eyes, cutting their wrists, and smearing their cells with feces ... immigrants held in the agency's isolation cells had suffered hallucinations, fits of anger, and suicidal impulses. Former detainees told ICIJ that they experienced sleeplessness, flashbacks, depression, and memory loss long after release."

Many ICE detainees have not been convicted of a crime, but only have been accused of coming in the country without the proper legal permission to do so.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.