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Abolish Solitary Confinement in Immigration and National Security Facilities, PHR Urges

For Immediate Release

Thousands of people awaiting immigration hearings in the US detention system are routinely held in solitary confinement, which can cause serious and lasting psychological and physiological harm, PHR says in a new report.

“The medical evidence shows indisputably that even relatively short periods in solitary confinement can cause irreversible damage , especially to vulnerable people,” said Christy Fujio, director of PHR’s Asylum Program and an author of the report. “Yet this soul-crushing punishment, which in some cases constitutes torture, is routinely inflicted even on people who have not been charged with any crimes.”

The report, “Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in the US Detention System,” documents the policies and regulations regarding that practice in more than a dozen US detention facilities selected to represent the range of institutions that house immigration detainees. It also includes information gleaned from public documents about procedures at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba and the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, where people suspected of involvement in terrorism have been indefinitely detained for years.

The report finds that solitary confinement in both types of institutions is used arbitrarily and excessively, often in contravention of regulations, and, in most cases, with little regard for the negative health consequences on the detainees. Those include panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, self-harm, sleep disturbances, weight loss, deteriorating eyesight, and difficulty with concentration and memory.

“In both immigration and national security settings, detainees are mostly non-US citizens with little knowledge of their rights and with limited or no access to legal counsel,” Fujio said. “Many of them are held in solitary confinement for committing minor infractions of facility rules or for the convenience of the security personnel. The routine abuse of this practice reflects an abdication by federal, state, and local governments of their moral and legal responsibility to treat all those in their custody humanely and in conformance with international prohibitions against torture and ill treatment.”

PHR urges Congress to abolish solitary confinement outright for both immigration and national security detainees. Until that is done, PHR also recommends intermediate steps to minimize harm to detainees:

  • Solitary confinement should be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort for as brief a period as possible.
  • Solitary confinement should never be used to control or punish mentally ill detainees.
  • Solitary confinement must never last more than nine days, absent a compelling threat to safety or security.
  • Detainees’ medical and mental health must be examined by qualified professionals at the initiation of solitary confinement and daily thereafter. 

“For more than a century, prison and medical experts have known that solitary confinement causes severe psychological damage,” Fujio said. “The time is long overdue for practices inside US detention facilities to be brought into line with scientific knowledge and international law.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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