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The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and three people previously detained at different U.S. immigrant detention centers filed a federal civil rights complaint today demanding a system-wide investigation into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) failures to provide adequate mental health care for people in its custody and its abusive use of solitary confinement. Included with the complaint are declarations from three physicians with extensive experience working with individuals in ICE custody and documenting their conditions.

In the complaint, the previously detained individuals, who had pre-existing mental health diagnoses or began experiencing symptoms soon after they were taken into custody, describe delayed care or unanswered requests for care. When ICE did respond to requests for mental health care, the care was poor and neglectful, resulting in grievous consequences, including attempts of self-harm.

Edwin Silva, a complainant who was detained in Dodge County Detention Center in Wisconsin, describes how ICE failed to provide him mental health treatment, despite his repeated requests for help and knowledge that he suffered from bipolar disorder and anxiety. Instead, ICE officers put him in solitary confinement five times during his four months at the jail. “I came to feel in a way that I’d never felt before,” he states in the complaint. “I would sit in solitary thinking about what would happen to me if I returned to Nicaragua — thinking of how my life would be in danger… Everything came to my mind. I felt so depressed. I cried whenever I was in solitary. I couldn’t sleep at night. We didn’t have the right to do anything.”

ICE has been under scrutiny for nearly a decade regarding its abusive use of solitary confinement, which is particularly harmful for people with mental health challenges. A 2012 report by NIJC and Physicians for Human Rights revealed that ICE was subjecting hundreds of immigrants to punitive and abusive use of solitary confinement. But, as this complaint and a 2019 investigation from The Intercept and International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reveal, ICE has turned a blind eye to this mounting evidence, and continues to subject individuals with mental health disabilities to solitary confinement across facilities nationwide.

“Detention center medical systems have limited health care services, are frequently understaffed, and are focused on managing acute care needs rather than chronic medical problems, resulting in medical neglect, delayed diagnoses and care, and severe negative consequences, especially among trauma-exposed individuals,” said Dr. Altaf Saadi and Dr. James Recht, two doctors who are members of the Asylum Network of Physicians for Human Rights and have conducted medical and psychological evaluations for hundreds of individuals in ICE detention. In their declaration they observe, “it may in fact be impossible to deliver good medical care in a structure that is designed to punish.”

The stories and findings in the complaint reiterate the urgency of NIJC’s call to the Biden administration to end the use of detention in the enforcement of civil immigration laws. The complaint calls for DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate not only ICE’s failure to provide adequate mental health care and its misuse of solitary confinement for the three complainants, but also for every immigration detention facility in the system. Decades of research and testimony from the three doctors in the complaint confirm that the experiences of these three individuals represent system-wide failures that require immediate action including ending the use of immigration detention.

NIJC filed the complaint on behalf of the following individuals:

Angela Osorio (she/her) was detained at McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility in Illinois and then transferred to Chase County Detention Center in Kansas. Angela never experienced mental health issues before she was detained by ICE, but her mental health deteriorated soon after her detention. It took more than two weeks for her to receive an appointment because McHenry only had one mental health practitioner on-site. The practitioner did not make eye contact with Angela during their two-minute meeting and failed to explain Angela’s diagnosis or side effects of prescribed medication. Angela’s depression culminated in a suicide attempt — which she says she did not disclose to detention staff out of fear she would be punished through solitary confinement. Her symptoms worsened when ICE transferred her to Chase — a facility with no on-site mental health services. It took over two months for Angela to see a therapist, and when she did, the appointment was conducted over Zoom.

Months after her release from detention, Angela continues to struggle with depression. She says, “... my mental health has improved, but sometimes I still hear that voice in my head. The same voice telling me that life is not worth living and I will end up in detention again, or worse, deported.”

Edwin Silva (he/him) was detained at Dodge County Detention Center in Wisconsin for about four months. Shortly before being detained, Edwin suffered two mental health crises that resulted in hospitalization and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and anxiety. After he was detained, he became increasingly depressed and sought help to treat his mental health conditions. Although he told medical staff about his diagnoses, they did not want to give him medication until they verified his conditions with the hospital that treated him. But that verification never occurred. He continued asking for medication to no avail and was not adequately medicated until his release.

Even with his pre-existing mental health conditions, Edwin was subject to some form of solitary confinement five times, ranging from four hours to two weeks — totaling about a month of isolation. He describes being punished for “any little thing,” such as not having a shirt on during a “detainee count” or not knowing he needed to go to the food hall during breakfast.

Jefferson Estime (he/him) was detained at Dodge County Detention Center and subsequently at Clay County Jail in Indiana with a pre-existing diagnosis of bipolar disorder and depression. He says both facilities were problematic in delivering mental health care, but his time in Clay, in particular, took a toll on his mental health and aggravated his symptoms. He was detained at Clay for almost two months without receiving mental health treatment. Other factors contributed to his declining mental health, including a sergeant physically assaulting him and substandard detention conditions like dysfunctional toilets and showers.

He explains: “I’d ask for medication so many times so that they could help me sleep at night, but it was impossible to get them because there was no psychologist, no one. I felt desperate at Clay. I don’t know how long I would have lasted locked up in there.”