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New ICE rule limits solitary confinement of immigration detainees

In a welcome development, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has issued substantive new policy limits on its use of solitary confinement on immigrants awaiting deportation and removal hearings. As the New York Times has reported, every day, some 300 immigration detainees are held in solitary in ICE's 50 largest facilities. They are kept isolated in small cells with little human contact for 22 to 24 hours a day -- at least half for two weeks or longer -- for disciplinary infractions or for protection.

About 1 percent of the 34,000 detainees ICE holds each day, on average, are subjected to this. Yet immigration detention is a civil, not a criminal hold -- and is not supposed to involve punishment at all.

Solitary confinement is not a "time out." The United Nations considers subjecting a person to solitary confinement for 15 days or longer to be torture. In fact, after reporting on ICE's use of solitary for immigration detainees, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture warned publicly that "the United States is in breach of its obligations under the torture convention."

Roughly half of all prison suicides occur in solitary, including those of at least 133 immigration detainees since 2003. Isolation has been proven to cause permanent psychological harm, yet ICE has used it even for mentally vulnerable people, including rape victims.

The good news is that ICE recently issued a new directive intended to create substantive limits on its use, along with and robust monitoring. Perhaps most important, strict restrictions were added to ensure that solitary confinement is be used only as an absolute last resort for vulnerable people.

Furthermore, a hearing before an ICE field office director will be required before any detainee can be put in solitary, with reviews if it is to continue for more than 14 days, at 30 days, and every subsequent 30 days. The hearing also applies to isolation for any 14 days out of 21. Solitary is only authorized after the hearing determines the detainee has committed serious misconduct and that no less-restrictive option would be adequate to regulate the behavior.

Even if fully enforced, the new rules still don't fully meet UN guideline, or even the standards proposed in the still-pending immigration reform bill. Moreover, the total time detainees can be kept in solitary is not limited -- even for vulnerable people. Nevertheless, the restrictions are a big step in the right direction.

Source: ACLU Blog of Rights, "New limits announced on ICE's solitary confinement of immigrants," Carl Takei, ACLU National Prison Project, Sept. 6, 2013

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