Jailed Without Justice: Immigrants in Solitary Confinement

March 26, 2013

A guard locks a gate inside Homeland Security's Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).
A guard locks a gate inside Homeland Security’s Willacy Detention Center, a facility with 10 giant tents that can house up to 2000 detained illegal immigrants (Photo Credit: Amnesty International USA).

On March 25, 2013, the New York Times published an article about the use, and overuse, of solitary confinement in immigration detention. It reported that 300 individuals are held in solitary confinement while awaiting resolution of their immigration cases, including one individual who was held for four months because of his sexual orientation.

Much like the issue raised by Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration detention on March 19th, the real question is why are these individuals even detained in the first place?

As Amnesty International documented in its report in 2009, Jailed Without Justice: Immigration Detention in the USA, individuals, including lawful permanent residents with long-standing ties to the U.S. and asylum seekers, are needlessly locked up in state and local jails and prisons for the sole purpose of appearing at immigration hearings, often without a hearing to determine whether they are a danger to the community or a flight risk.

Like any other circumstance, under international standards, detention pending removal proceedings must be justified as a necessary and proportionate measure in each individual case, and should only be used as a measure of last resort and be subject to judicial review. Furthermore, many of these facilities do not meet international standards for conditions of confinement where the sole purpose is administrative detention.  This expanded use of immigration detention in the past 12 years where 34,000 individuals are in detention each day, often comes at a great financial cost, even though effective and cheaper alternatives to detention exist.

These alternatives to detention, such as community-based supervision with regular reporting to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have been shown to be effective with an estimated 91 percent appearance rate before the immigration courts.  Other methods, such as the issuance of a bond, electronic monitoring, and regular reporting to ICE are other alternatives to detention that are routinely used in the criminal justice system and are equally effective alternatives to detention for immigration detainees.  Despite the effectiveness of these less expensive and less restrictive alternatives to detention in ensuring compliance with immigration procedures, the use of immigration detention continues to rise at the expense of the United States’ human rights obligations.

Moreover, as Amnesty International has documented in recent reports, such as The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units, prolonged isolation and lack of external stimuli can have severe negative psychological and physical effects, including depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment and social withdrawal, some of which may continue long after release from isolation. The cumulative effects of such conditions, particularly when imposed for prolonged or indefinite periods, amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, in violation of international law. In recognition of the negative effects of such treatment, international and regional human rights bodies and experts have called on states to limit their use of solitary confinement, so that it is imposed only in exceptional circumstances for as short a period as possible.

While recognizing that it may sometimes be necessary to segregate prisoners for disciplinary or security purposes, given that immigration detention is solely for administrative purposes, Amnesty International sees no justified purpose in confining individuals in such a highly restricted environment in the first place. And it is all the more reason why alternatives to detention must be more widely utilized in the context of immigration enforcement.

In relation to this, Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. government to ensure that human rights principles underpin any reforms of the U.S. immigration system. One such principle would be to make detention a tool of last resort, where every immigrant and asylum seeker gets a hearing to determine the necessity of their custody while awaiting the conclusion of their immigration case. Join us in our call and take action.