Solitary confinement is widely criticized as a cruel and unnecessary practice. It’s largely unsupported by the public as a disciplinary measure and badly in need of reform.
On October 26, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on solitary confinement practices used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It highlighted the dangers of solitary confinement—detrimental health impacts such as anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and increased risk for self-harm and suicide—and ICE’s failure to comply with its own solitary confinement policies within its vast web of detention facilities.
One of the GAO’s primary findings was ICE detention facilities did not provide detailed documentation justifying the placement of a person in solitary confinement. ICE’s policies allow detention facilities to place a person in solitary confinement—one or two-person cells separate from the general population for up to 24 hours per day—in certain circumstances.
The GAO found detention facilities varied significantly in the amount of documentation provided to justify solitary confinement. In a review of documentation for a sample of 147 solitary confinement placements in fiscal years 2019 and 2021, the GAO found 61 documentations—approximately 41 percent—provided only a cursory explanation of why ICE used solitary confinement. Examples of offenses justifying solitary included: 1) “conduct that disrupts or interferes with the security or orderly operation of the facility” or 2) statements that a person was a security risk to themselves or the facility (with no explanation why).
The report also found serious deficiencies in another area of reporting required under the agency’s own guidance. ICE field offices must note when individuals identified as part of a vulnerable group are placed in solitary confinement. The GAO found, however, that ICE’s solitary confinement data did not successfully identify people who were part of vulnerable groups.
The Segregation Review Management System (SRMS) is the data system ICE uses to track solitary confinement placements. When the GAO compared SRMS to other databases used to track vulnerable populations, such as those individuals with mental health conditions or other disabilities, they identified serious discrepancies. For example, between fiscal years 2017 through 2021, SRMS identified 476 segregated housing placements involving detained individuals with serious mental health conditions. In a review of a different database that tracked serious mental health conditions, however, the GAO identified an additional 3,541 solitary confinement placements of detained individuals with serious mental health conditions that were not identified in SRMS.
An additional troubling GAO finding was the large percentage of solitary confinement placements categorized as “disciplinary.” Of the 14,581 solitary confinement placements between fiscal years 2017 and 2021, ICE categorized 5,906 (about 41 percent) as disciplinary. This is true even though ICE policy directs detention facilities to use solitary confinement only for high level offenses, including fighting and assault.
Finally, the report found ICE’s complaint process lacking. After reviewing complaint data, the GAO found that ICE Health Service Corps took action on most of the complaints it received, but the ERO field offices did not.
In response to the serious issues outlined in its report, the GAO recommends ICE (1) provide specific guidance to ERO field offices about how to document decisions to place individuals in solitary confinement, and (2) identify all detained noncitizens in vulnerable populations in solitary confinement. According to the GAO, ICE concurred with the recommendations.
These recommendations do not address some of the serious continuing concerns with misuse of solitary confinement in ICE detention facilities, but they do address continuing transparency and oversight concerns. Policies that require ICE better justify the placement of individuals in solitary confinement remove any potential excuse-making on the agency’s part that guidance is unclear or inconsistent. In addition, the requirement that the agency keep better data about individuals in vulnerable populations in solitary confinement has the potential to provide a more comprehensive picture of the individuals in ICE detention who are part of vulnerable groups and their treatment in detention.
There is wide agreement that ICE does not reliably conduct oversight over solitary confinement. Worse, it has actively sought to destroy records about solitary confinement and other records about abuse in detention. The GAO’s report indicates, again, that oversight entities should continue to challenge ICE’s solitary confinement practices. In addition, the GAO’s methodology—including its analysis of data from various ICE databases and descriptions of the data and information that the agency keeps—provides a helpful roadmap for FOIA requesters who would like to examine ICE records to conduct their own oversight.