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Immigrants in detention facilities around the United States often are subjected to punitive and long-term solitary confinement and denied meaningful avenues of appeal, according to an investigation by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

NIJC and PHR surveyed conditions in more than a dozen detention centers and county jails that contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Our report, Invisible in Isolation: The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention, is the first comprehensive examination of the effects of solitary confinement on immigration detainees.

While the harm caused by solitary confinement to inmates in prisons and jails has been well documented, the new report shows that solitary confinement of immigrants in detention is often arbitrarily applied, inadequately monitored, harmful to their health, and a violation of their due process rights. In the report, NIJC and PHR call on ICE and Congress to end solitary confinement in immigration detention, severely limit other forms of segregation, and implement stricter oversight of the detention system.

“This investigation shows us just how deeply the immigration detention system’s troubles run.” said NIJC Executive Director Mary Meg McCarthy. “Immigrants who are not dangerous and should not be detained at all are being put in lockdown for 23 hours a day and become invisible as they face egregious human rights violations. Immigration detainees should not be subject to solitary confinement. ICE must hold detention facilities accountable to end this practice.”

“The point of immigration detention isn’t to punish people,” said Mike Corradini, PHR’s asylum advocacy associate and co-author of the report, “so the immigration detention system shouldn’t be relying on jails in the first place. But we found instances of guards throwing people in solitary for minor infractions, or because they are mentally ill, or for helping other detainees file complaints about conditions.”

The human rights groups uncovered numerous cases in which detention facilities placed mentally ill immigrants in solitary confinement rather than treating them, or separated sexual minorities against their wishes from the general inmate population. Many immigration detainees in solitary confinement had strict limits placed on such “privileges” as outdoor recreation, reading material, and even access to legal counsel. Overall, investigators found, ICE has failed to hold detention centers and jails accountable for their abusive use of solitary confinement.

“What’s even more disturbing is what we don’t know – how many immigrants are kept in solitary confinement, how long they’re held, and who they are,” said Corradini. “If Congress and ICE are going to continue using jails to hold immigrants, they need to make sure that they know what’s going on in these facilities. We can’t allow jails to throw immigrants in solitary confinement whenever they feel like it.”

“If ICE feels it cannot keep immigration detainees safe without resorting to solitary confinement, then it needs to release those individuals and expand alternatives to detention programs,” said Alexis Perlmutter, NIJC acting director of policy and co-author of the report. “No human being should be subjected to the human rights violations we uncovered in this investigation.”

Invisible in Isolation: The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention is available at:

Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a non-governmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a combination of direct services, policy advocacy, impact litigation, and public education. For more than a third of its 30-year history, NIJC has provided Know Your Rights presentations, direct representation, and individual advocacy for thousands of adults and children in more than 45 detention facilities across the country.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an independent nonprofit organization that uses medical and scientific expertise to investigate human rights violations and advocate for justice, accountability, and the health and dignity of all people. Since 1986, PHR has conducted investigations in more than 40 countries, including the United States. PHR’s Asylum Program and its network of hundreds of volunteer health professionals have helped thousands of survivors of torture and other brutal forms of persecution gain asylum in the United States by providing medical evaluations to corroborate their claims of persecution. As part of the care it provides to asylum seekers, the Asylum Program advocates for improved conditions in U.S. immigration detention facilities and documents human rights abuses that immigrants suffer in their home countries and in the United States.