The United States government has placed detained immigrants in solitary confinement more than 14,000 times in the last five years, and the average duration is almost twice the 15-day threshold that the United Nations has said may constitute torture, according to a new analysis of federal records by researchers at Harvard and the nonprofit group Physicians for Human Rights.
The report, based on government records from 2018 through 2023 and interviews with several dozen former detainees, noted cases of extreme physical, verbal and sexual abuse for immigrants held in solitary cells. The New York Times reviewed the original records cited in the report, spoke with the data analysts and interviewed former detainees to corroborate their stories.
Overall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is detaining more than 38,000 people — up from about 15,000 at the start of the Biden administration in January 2021, according to an independent tracking system maintained by Syracuse University. A growing proportion of detainees are being held in private prison facilities with little means of accountability, and preliminary data from 2023 suggests a “marked increase” in the use of solitary confinement, according to the report.
A spokesman for ICE, Mike Alvarez, said in a statement that 15 entities oversee ICE detention facilities to “ensure detainees reside in safe, secure and humane environments, and under appropriate conditions of confinement.” He added that detained immigrants are able to file complaints about facilities or staff conduct via phone or through the Homeland Security inspector general.
“Placement of detainees in segregation requires careful consideration of alternatives, and administrative segregation placements for a special vulnerability should be used only as a last resort,” he said, using the agency’s terminology for solitary confinement. “Segregation is never used as a method of retaliation.”
ICE issued directives in 2013 and 2015 to limit the use of solitary confinement, saying it should be a “last resort.”