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Editorial: Solitary Detention; Barbaric Treatment of Immigrants

There are many thorny issues to be sorted out as Congress and the Obama administration try to agree on comprehensive immigration reform, including what to do about illegal immigrants who are already in the country and how to increase enforcement efforts. One that is not thorny is the appalling treatment to which some immigrants are subjected when they are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. That’s an abuse of human rights that must be halted.

As The New York Times reported Sunday, a review of new federal data indicates that about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement on any given day across the 50 largest detention centers nationwide. Of those 300, according to the Times, nearly half are isolated for 15 or more days, with about 35 detainees kept in solitary for more than 75 days.

The 15-day mark is significant because that’s the point at which psychiatrists say those held in solitary are at risk of severe mental harm. The dangers of such confinement are well known. Even otherwise healthy prisoners deprived of human contact for prolonged periods are prone to paranoia, depression, memory loss and self-mutilation. The Times reports that about half of all prison suicides occur when inmates are segregated in this way.

The United States has long been justifiably criticized for its overreliance on solitary confinement in its prison system, but what’s remarkable here is that immigrants are being held to ensure that they appear at administrative hearings on their status. That is, their confinement is civil, not criminal; they are not supposed to be punished, let alone be kept by themselves in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells for 22 or 23 hours a day. Significantly, detainees are not automatically provided with legal counsel, and about 85 percent do not have a lawyer.

But surely detainees who are put in solitary must have criminal records or histories of violence? Some do, but an immigration agency adviser who reviewed the data estimates that about two-thirds of the cases involved disciplinary infractions such as rule-breaking, talking back to guards, and getting into fights. Also subject to solitary are those deemed in need of protection from other detainees — primarily mentally ill and gay people.

An example of the latter cited by the Times is Delfino Quiroz, a gay immigrant from Mexico, who was stopped while driving drunk in 2010. He had been living in the United States waiting for legal status from an application that his father, an American citizen, had submitted 12 years earlier. His probation officer handed him over to ICE, which placed him in solitary confinement for four months for his own protection, despite his protests, before he was eventually released.

Quiroz said he sank into deep depression while he was in solitary, during which time he overheard three other inmates attempt suicide.

In many circles, sensory deprivation through prolonged solitary confinement is regarded as torture. Congress ought to insist at a minimum that, except in extraordinary circumstances, no one who is detained by our government to determine immigration status should be subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, and that each immigrant placed in solitary for more than a few days have a lawyer appointed to represent him or her. There are no grounds for subjecting people who simply want to live in this country to this kind of barbarism.