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Conditions at the NWDC: Solitary Confinement

Photo courtesy La Resistencia, logo by Eucalyp from Noun Project
Photo courtesy La Resistencia, logo by Eucalyp from Noun Project

November 30, 2020

This report is part of a series regarding Human Rights Conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, based on ongoing research efforts and released to highlight initial findings in the urgent context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contents:

Introduction
Background, Methodology, & Human Rights Standards
Sanitation of Food & Laundry
Allegations of Medical Neglect
Use of Solitary Confinement
COVID-19 & Health Standards

← Previous section: Allegations of Medical Neglect

Solitary confinement at the Northwest Detention Center

Through years of litigation against the Department of Homeland Security, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights has obtained documents that provide a detailed look at the use of solitary confinement (also known as segregation) in the Northwest Detention Center.[1] These documents, to our knowledge the first of their kind to have been released about any ICE detention facility in the United States, permit a deeper understanding of how segregation is used than has been previously available. In this report, we draw on these records, as well as others released to UWCHR and other researchers, to raise three interrelated concerns about the use of solitary confinement at the NWDC:

  1. According to ICE’s data, the Northwest Detention Center detains people longer, on average, in solitary confinement than any other dedicated ICE facility[2] in the nation.
  2. In violation of ICE’s own rules, solitary confinement is frequently used on detained people who are mentally ill and others who exercise their First Amendment rights.
  3. GEO and/or ICE systematically under-report the use of segregation in their facilities. The gaps in disclosure are significant: a comparison of internal and external data reveals that as many as 86% of NWDC solitary placements during a one year period were neither logged in ICE’s monitoring system nor reported to the public. In addition, at least one known placement in solitary appears to have never been registered by GEO or ICE.

UWCHR’s research on the NWDC

This report is the fourth in a series regarding Human Rights Conditions at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, based on ongoing research efforts and released to highlight initial findings in the urgent context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our methodology section describes the research our team has conducted since 2017 on the human rights implications of federal immigration enforcement in our state, including the conditions of confinement at Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center or NWDC.

In this report, we rely in particular on several caches of documents obtained earlier this year from ICE through ongoing litigation under FOIA. These include two datasets for overlapping time periods (May 2013 to May 2018, and September 2013 to March 2020) drawn from ICE’s Segregation Review Management System (SRMS); Significant Incident Reports from January 1, 2015 to September 30, 2019; and grievance forms filed by detained people at the NWDC from February 2015 to January 2, 2018. In addition, we obtained an array of GEO documents, including two datasets of segregation placements created by GEO Group employees, and the facility’s case-by-case documentation for all individuals placed into solitary confinement at the NWDC from January 1, 2018, to March 31, 2020. We complement our review of these records with statements by detained and formerly-detained people, in collaboration with human rights organizations including La Resistencia, the ACLU of Washington, and others; published inspection reports; and federal court filings in the case of Jesús Chávez vs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Standards for solitary confinement in immigrant detention

ICE’s practices regarding immigration detention defy international human rights standards. International human rights law stipulates that countries should only use civil (or administrative) detention[3] as a measure of last resort, rather than a routine practice of immigration enforcement.[4] Furthermore, the UN Standards of Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” state that, “In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be prohibited: (a) Indefinite solitary confinement; (b) Prolonged solitary confinement. Prolonged solitary confinement is defined… as solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days. …The imposition of solitary confinement should be prohibited in the case of prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their conditions would be exacerbated by such measures.”[5] In other words, many of the practices discussed in this report are considered torture under international human rights law.

ICE’s own policies on solitary confinement vary by type of facility, but those applicable at the NWDC are articulated both in the detailed Performance-Based National Detention Standards of 2011, last revised in 2016, and in a 2013 directive issued specifically on segregation.[6] These rules contemplate both disciplinary segregation, a punitive status capped at 30 days “except in extraordinary circumstances,”[7] which can only be initiated following various steps, including a hearing; and administrative segregation, an ostensibly “non punitive” status used to isolate detainees for their own protection or that of the facility itself.[8] Each type of detention generates different forms of mandatory review and reporting. In addition, cells intended for solitary confinement are occasionally used for medical isolation, a practice advocates have criticized as detrimental to the health of detained people suffering from infectious diseases like varicella and COVID-19.[9]

ICE database shows NWDC solitary placements longest in the nation

Journalists,[10] policymakers,[11] whistleblowers,[12] and community activists have long raised concerns about the use of solitary confinement in ICE detention. In 2019, the Project on Government Oversight[13] and the International Commission of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)[14] published important analyses of the use of segregation in ICE detention, using data obtained via FOIA from ICE’s “Segregation Review Management System” (SRMS) database. Similar information was released to UWCHR researchers in response to our own FOIA request. This data shows that the NWDC held people in solitary confinement, on average, longer than any other ICE dedicated facility in the nation.[15]

Indeed, solitary stays are longer at NWDC than similar facilities by a large margin. At the NWDC, stays in segregation averaged almost 70 days,[16] 29% longer than any other dedicated detention facility. The national average during this period was approximately 30 days.

Figure 1: Average Length of Reported Segregation Stays – Top 15 Dedicated ICE Facilities

Figure ranking top 15 dedicated ICE detention facilities by average segregation stay length during the period from Jan. 2016 - May 2018; "Tacoma ICE Processing Center (Northwest Det Ctr) (WA)" ranked #1 at approximately 70 days.

During the nearly seven-year period for which SRMS data was provided to the UWCHR, more than 80% of reported placements in segregation at the NWDC experienced treatment considered torture according to international human rights standards.[17]

It is important to keep in mind that overall—not just in solitary—people are detained longer on average at NWDC than at other facilities; this general tendency may be reflected in the longer stays in solitary. The average length of overall detention at NWDC, 97 days during FY 2018,[18] was more than double the national average of about 47 days in FY 2018.[19] This ranks among the longest in the nation when compared to similar facilities.[20]

In 2020, pursuant to ongoing litigation, UWCHR researchers received a new cache of documents from ICE. Significantly, these documents included two quantitative datasets of solitary placements compiled by employees of GEO Group, the private prison company that owns and operates the NWDC under contract with ICE. (In the past, ICE has asserted that such materials can only be obtained from GEO directly, and GEO has declined to respond to FOIA requests, citing its status as a private company.) The GEO datasets paint a significantly different picture: they included solitary stays of shorter than 14 days not captured in SRMS data,[21] but also include a significantly larger number of solitary placements longer than 14 days, as shown in the table below.[22] While it is unclear why so many discrepancies were found between these databases, it appears that the SRMS data released to UWCHR and other researchers may significantly underreport the number of solitary placements at the NWDC. We return to the question of underreporting in section 3 of this report.

Table 1. NWDC segregation datasets released to UWCHR

Dataset Time period Total completed placements Average stay length[23] Median stay length Max stay length # of stays > 14 days
RHU

(GEO segregation lieutenant’s spreadsheet)

2015-01-03 to 2020-05-28 2457 14.08 4 693 480
SMU[24]

(GEOtrack report by housing assignment)

2013-06-27 to 2020-03-30 3433 9.98 3 488 598
SRMS 1

(Placements reported to ICE, first installment)

2013-05-13 to 2018-05-14 357 59.61 30 781 296
SRMS 2

(Placements reported to ICE, second installment)

2013-09-03 to 2020-03-16 453 59.41 31 691 387

Solitary confinement and mental illness

The devastating mental health consequences of prolonged detention in isolation are well-known.[25] For this reason, international human rights law requires particular attention to the needs of vulnerable groups, including the mentally ill. The Nelson Mandela Rules for the treatment of prisoners stipulate, in Rule 45, paragraph 2: “The imposition of solitary confinement should be prohibited in the case of prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their conditions would be exacerbated by such measures.”[26]

ICE’s own guidelines recognize the perils of detention for the mentally ill,[27] and mandate extra caution regarding the use of solitary for this population. ICE’s 2013 directive notes that “placement in administrative segregation due to a special vulnerability should be used only as a last resort and when no other viable housing options exist”; mental illness is among the vulnerabilities noted.[28] Relatedly, ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS 2011) require that “every effort shall be made to place detainees with serious mental illness in a setting in or outside of the facility in which appropriate treatment can be provided, rather than an SMU [Special Management Unit], if separation from the general population is necessary.”[29]

Despite this, a 2019 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) concluded that across the nation, ICE relies on solitary confinement “to house detainees they simply don’t know what to do with.”[30] Similarly,[31] Project on Government Oversight (POGO) researchers found that nationwide, roughly 40% of reported segregation placements involved people who had been diagnosed with mental illness.[32]

Similar rates were found at NWDC, where 34% of solitary placements recorded by the ICE SRMS from September 2013-March 2020 involved people whose records were flagged to indicate the person had been diagnosed with a mental illness.[33] Six placements listed “mental illness” as the reason for their placement in solitary. The longest placement of an individual in solitary confinement for reasons of mental illness was 147 days; on average, people detained at NWDC who were placed in solitary for mental health reasons spent approximately 38 days in segregation.[34] This clearly runs afoul of international standards, which mandate caution for the placement of mentally ill prisoners in solitary at all, and expressly prohibit solitary stays longer than 15 days for any prisoner, considering it tantamount to torture.[35]

At the same time, there may be reason for concern that these figures fail to account for all those with mental illness confined in segregation. In the records UWCHR reviewed, of the six solitary placements at NWDC identified as being necessary for reasons of mental illness, only half were of individuals who were actually flagged in the system as being mentally ill.

Figure 2: Reported NWDC Segregation Placements by Mental Illness Category

Figure depicting quarterly count of segregation placements at NWDC reported to ICE SRMS by mental illness category ("Mental Illness", "Serious Mental Illness", "None"). In total, about 34% of solitary placements recorded by the ICE SRMS from September 2013-March 2020 involved people whose records were flagged to indicate the person had been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Other sources have noted a failure to identify and track cases of mental illness at the NWDC. In 2014, ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight Inspection report noted that more than half of the medical records reviewed in the NWDC inspection process did not include medical or psychiatric alerts as required.[36] As noted in our recent report on medical neglect, employees of the facility’s medical team also appear to have denounced failures to detect mental illness: in 2018, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General received information from a source within the US Public Health Service—the institution whose staff provide health care at the NWDC, through the ICE Health Service Corps—about the NWDC’s failure to detect serious mental illness in a specific detained person. According to the source, the individual had a significant psychiatric history, but “had not been identified by facility mental health staff as having met seriously mentally ill (SMI) criteria, therefore, he was not closely monitored and tracked in order to determine whether he received appropriate care and follow-up care.”[37]

Internal GEO records from more recent years suggest similar patterns may persist. A record of assignment to administrative segregation from October 23, 2017, notes that a man has returned to the NWDC after a stay at an outside hospital and has been placed in solitary confinement because of his “irrational” behavior. Despite having been in segregation for three days at the time the document was written, its author notes that he has yet to have received a medical screening.

Document 1 – Northwest Detention Center Administrative Detention Order, October 23, 2017

Northwest Detention Center Administrative Detention Order, October 23, 2017. Details field reads: "Detainee released from hospital, return to RHU as security risk. Detainee has continually exhibited irrational behavior that would endager general population. Detainee is not cooperating with medical staff, [redacted] security staff. Detainee has still not been screened by medical staff."

Of course, placement in solitary confinement often exacerbates existing mental illness, resulting in worse health outcomes, sometimes including suicide. Unfortunately, the details of the 2018 suicide of Mergansana Amar while in solitary at the NWDC remain unclear; while public officials, including Governor Inslee[38] demanded an independent inspection take place following his death, the results of any such investigation conducted have not been made public.

In 2014, ICE whistleblower Ellen Gallagher described mentally ill people detained at other ICE facilities cycling “chronically back and forth from the general population to administrative or disciplinary segregation, with periodic, crisis-oriented admissions to psychiatric hospitals punctuating their return to the same disturbing cycle.”[39] This tendency appears to underlie some of the experiences documented in NWDC records who are shuttled between solitary confinement, the general population, and outside facilities.

For example, ICE records document the experience of a 22-year-old Nicaraguan who attempted suicide multiple times while at NWDC, according to ICE’s internal documents. The first attempt occurred while he was confined to Segregation (H-Unit) despite having a history of self-harm, in June 2017:

Document 2 – ICE Significant Incident Report, June 9, 2017

Document 2 - ICE Significant Incident Report, June 9, 2017. Report Title: "ICE Detainee Suicide Attempt-SEA" Narrative: "On June 9, 2017, at approximately 1340 hours, PST, ICE ERO Seattle detainee [redacted] a 22-year old male, native of Nicaragua, was transported to Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, WA, via ambulance for attempting self-harm. [Redacted] was in the Segregation/H-Unit shower and used a razor blade to cause self-harm. [Redacted] actions caused lacerations to the front of his neck and left wrist. IHSC staff applied stitches to [redacted] [p]rior to him being escorted out of the facility. [Redacted] has a history of self harm."

In August of the same year, he was again taken to the hospital for engaging in self harm, though the document notes he was assigned to the general population at the time:

Document 3 – ICE Significant Incident Report, August 28, 2017

Document 3 - ICE Significant Incident Report, August 28, 2017. Report Title: Self Harm ICE Detainee-SEA. Narrative: "On August 28, 2017, at approximately 0340 hours, PST, ICE ERO Seattle detainee [redacted], 22-year old male, native of Nicaragua, was transported to Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, WA, via ambulance for attempting self-harm. [Redacted] actions caused lacerations to the front of his nect. [Redacted] has a history of self-harm. [Redacted] was the Subject of a previous SEN [redacted] for self-harm."

In September, he was admitted to an offsite mental health care facility:

Document 4 – ICE Significant Incident Report, September 12, 2017

Document 4 - ICE Significant Incident Report, September 12, 2017. Report Title: "ICE Detainee Hospitalized-SEA". Narrative: "On August 28, 2017, at approximately 0340 hours, PST, ICE ERO Seattle detainee [redacted] a 22-year old male, native of Nicaragua, was transported to Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, WA via ambulance for attempting self-harm. [Redacted] was admitted to the hospital for treatment while awaiting acceptance to Greater Lakes Mental Healthcare Center. On September 11, 2017 [redacted] was accepted and transferred to Greater Lakes for treatment. [Redacted] was the Subject of a previous SEN [redacted] and SEN [redacted] for self-harm."

In another example, ICE records show that one Guatemalan man, a former DACA recipient, was diagnosed with mental illness by ICE mental personnel, and twice attempted suicide while in solitary confinement. On June 5, 2019, in a possible violation of the Keep Washington Working Act, Snohomish County transferred him to ICE and he was taken to the NWDC. On June 17, 2019, he was diagnosed by NWDC medical personnel with a serious mental illness, but he was placed in solitary confinement—although the record does note that this followed consultation with NWDC medical personnel—pending an investigation of disciplinary charges against him on June 27. On June 28, he was found lying on the floor of his cell, verbally unresponsive and partially covered in vomit, having apparently ingested crushed pills; when he was taken to the hospital, he expressed suicidal ideation but was returned to the NWDC and placed on suicide watch. On July 12, 2019, he again attempted suicide while in solidary at the NWDC, and was transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital where he was held restrained at the arms and feet.

Some mentally ill people detained in solitary confinement experience this cycle as punctuated by violence. In one particularly disturbing case, ICE’s records document the traumatic spiral experienced by one 24 year old Mexican national who was the subject of 14 separate use of force incidents in a three-month period, each documented in Significant Incident Reports reviewed by UWCHR researchers:

  • Due to reportedly having put up resistance when taken into ICE custody, he was immediately placed in administrative segregation upon arrival at NWDC on June 6, 2019. On June 10, 2019, while in administrative segregation, he attempted an assault on a GEO officer.
  • On June 11, 2019, he assaulted GEO officers attempting to escort him to his disciplinary hearing for the previous assault. In the hearing, he was sentenced to 30 days in disciplinary segregation.
  • Later that same day, June 11, he attempted a third assault on GEO officers. The following day, on June 12, he assaulted an officer taking him to a meeting with his attorney.
  • On June 13, while in disciplinary segregation, he refused to return his dinner tray. GEO called in a Hostage Negotiating Team officer to attempt to secure his compliance, but this was not successful. At this point, the Acting Deputy Field Office Director for the Seattle Area of Responsibility authorized a calculated use of force, including the deployment of chemical agents (pepper spray) within his cell with the door closed. Following this, he became sufficiently compliant to allow officers to forcibly extract him from his cell and take him to the shower area for decontamination, although while there he again attempted to assault the officers, reportedly while screaming, “I am insane.”
  • On June 27, while in medical isolation “as a result of five previous assaults,” he attempted a sixth assault, leading to a spontaneous use of force against him.
  • On July 3, when officers attempted to transfer him from medical isolation to disciplinary segregation to serve the remainder of his 30-day sentence, he again attempted violence and the officers used force against him.
  • On July 5, while in disciplinary segregation, he attempted an assault against a GEO officer, and was pepper-sprayed.
  • On July 8, he attempted to assault officers escorting him back to his cell following a hearing in immigration court.
  • On July 27, while in medical isolation, officers observed him behaving aggressively over the course of three hours, punching walls and glass, and determined that he should be taken to St. Joseph’s Medical Center for evaluation. To transport him, they restrained him in wrist and leg irons and placed a hood over his head to prevent spitting.
  • Two days later, on July 29, he was again pepper sprayed for uncooperative behavior in medical isolation.
  • On August 1, he was being held in wrist restraints in medical isolation. The IHSC Medical Director concluded that he should be returned to St. Joseph’s Hospital for further testing. He resisted removal from his cell and was forcibly restrained and transported in restraints via ambulance. He was not admitted to the hospital.
  • On August 3, he was again noncompliant with staff directives while housed in medical isolation in restraints, resulting in the fourteenth use of force against him in less than three months’ time. Chemical agents were deployed inside his cell. Following the incident, he was again placed in “soft restraints.”

It is unclear whether further incidents continued, as the collection of Significant incident Reports provided to UWCHR cuts off at the end of August 2019. But the picture that emerges from this period of his detention is one of a person in crisis, subjected to increasingly restrictive conditions until, at the conclusion of these records, he is restrained at all times.

While it is not possible, from the records reviewed, to conclude specifically that placement in solitary confinement made these individuals’ mental health problems worse, the repeated suicide attempts and, in the last case above, unrelenting violence inflicted and received during detention, raise important questions about whether the adequacy of care for the mentally ill provided at the NWDC. (Significantly, it is not even clear from these records in this last case whether NWDC recognized him as mentally ill until an immigration judge ruled him to be mentally incompetent in July 2019.)

Solitary confinement for hunger strikers

ICE and GEO records also show that the NWDC has repeatedly assigned those protesting unfair treatment to solitary confinement. In at least six cases included in data released to UWCHR by ICE, the records indicated the reasons for a person’s placement in solitary was their participating in hunger strikes or other forms of Constitutionally-protected free speech activities, including four sentenced in March 2014 to between 16 and 25 days in disciplinary segregation for “inciting others in group demonstration” or “inciting others to conduct work stoppage and strike.” Advocates suggest this practice is in fact more common, with hunger strikers being placed in solitary for reasons that might appear unrelated to their protest, but in practice constitute retaliation for speaking out.[40] This way of responding to protest suggests the retaliatory use of solitary confinement, a practice inconsistent with international human rights norms.

Other analysts have also found evidence for the punitive use of solitary confinement in nationwide ICE data, suggesting the problem is not limited to the NWDC. The 2019 ICIJ report reviewed more than 8400 placements of solitary confinement nationwide, including 182 cases of people locked in segregation for participating in hunger strikes[41].

At the NWDC, Columbia Legal Services and the ACLU described one such incident in their March 2014 lawsuit on behalf of three hunger strikers placed in segregation, apparently for punitive reasons:

“Plaintiffs were placed in solitary confinement after corrections officers entered their living area and invited approximately 20 detainees to meet with an assistant warden to discuss their reasons for engaging in hunger strikes. Plaintiffs and other detainees who volunteered to attend the meeting were immediately placed in handcuffs and taken to individual isolation cells, where they were kept for 23 hours per day and were deprived of meaningful interactions with others. They were not told why they were placed in solitary confinement, nor how long they would have to live in isolation. …It appears that ICE’s placement of Plaintiffs and other hunger striking detainees in administrative segregation was in fact punishment and retaliation for engaging in constitutionally protected free speech activities.”[42]

In another case, the ACLU filed suit against the NWDC in February 2018 for the placement of hunger striker Jesús Chávez in disciplinary segregation following a physical altercation in which he was “punched with a closed fist” by a guard, resulting in an injury to his eye.[43] After the incident, GEO accused him of adulterating a bag of apples, presumably for fermentation into a drink, and sentenced him to 20 days in solitary confinement. But the process whereby these charges were adjudicated deviated dramatically from the standards spelled out in the PBNDS, which devotes considerable detail to a series of due process-like protections involving presentation of a written incident report noting the alleged infraction, the holding of a hearing in which the accused has the right to participate in their own defense, assisted by a representative if they have limited English proficiency.[44] In Mr. Chávez’s case, according to the ACLU, the disciplinary hearing was held without Mr. Chávez having received written notification in Spanish of the charges against him, and without him having an opportunity to speak for himself or even be present to witness the proceedings.[45], [46]

ICE’s internal documentation of the incident further conflicts with the legal documentation presented in court. The Significant Incident Report filed on February 9, 2018, describes the incident the previous day in which multiple people in C-3 pod expressed their intention to go on hunger strike and refused orders from officials to “bunk up,” progressing to a physical altercation in which one person was “inadvertently” “pok[ed] in the left eye,” in clear reference to Chávez’s injury. However, the ICE record says that he was subsequently evaluated in the clinic and “cleared of any injury,” while advocacy groups circulated photos and videos of Mr. Chavez that show an injury visible to his eye days later.

Document 5 – ICE Significant Incident Report, February 9, 2018

Document 5 - ICE Significant Incident Report, February 9, 2018 (page 1). Report Title: "POD Disturbance at NWDC SEA AOR". Describes encouter between GEO employees and detained people in C-3 pod "to address recent meal declinations and reports of detainees calling for a hunger strike", describes attempt to remove a detained person identified as an "instigator" from the pod, followed by refusal by other detained people to comply with orders to "go to their bunks".

Document 5 - ICE Significant Incident Report, February 9, 2018 (page 2). Continued description of encounter between GEO officers and detained people in C-3 pod, describes officer's "[attempt] to move one detainee...away from the C-3 door towards the bunk area...use of force was applied...which resulted in GEO Officer [redacted] inadvertently poking [redacted] in the left eye." Continues, "[Redacted] was evaluated by IHSC, treated in medical for the poke to his eye and cleared of any injury."

The Chávez case points to a still-deeper problem at the NWDC. A detailed review of all four separate logs of solitary confinement placements from 2013 to 2020, plus hundreds of pages of written documentation prepared and archived by GEO Group governing the reasons for all solitary placements from January 1, 2018 to March 31, 2020, there is no mention of Mr. Chávez ever having been placed in solitary. Had his case not been the subject of litigation in federal court, there would be no recognition that he had ever been in solitary.

We asked ICE’s attorneys why Mr. Chávez’s case was not included in the collection of records provided to us, since they insist these cover all solitary placements during this period. They indicated that they would not answer any further questions until several sets of unrelated documents we are seeking have been released to us, a process that is projected to last into 2021.

Hidden abuses

Accurately establishing the facts of the Chávez case would require a detailed revision of records that either do not exist, or are being withheld by ICE and its partners in the private prison industry. Unfortunately, we have reached the conclusion that at the local and federal level, records are being created and shared in a manner that obscures the facts about solitary confinement at the NWDC.

Unexplained gaps between GEO and ICE data

As noted above, UWCHR reviewed four separate datasets produced by ICE and GEO, each of which purported to cover all instances of solitary confinement at NWDC during the period under study; the details of each are explained in our data appendix. ICE’s 2013 directive clearly requires ERO Field Offices to document solitary placements into ICE’s “Segregation Review Management System” (SRMS) in three cases: when a detained person spends more than 14 consecutive days in solitary; when they spend a total of 14 days in any 21 day period in solitary; or when they are placed in solitary despite having a special vulnerability.[47]

Yet when GEO’s data is compared to ICE’s, unexplained gaps emerge. For example, the GEO logs show many more placements in solitary than were registered in the SRMS. Many of the unreported placements are short-term (i.e. under the 14 days at which reporting becomes mandatory in cases of those without known vulnerabilities), but even some longer placements appear to have gone unregistered, for unexplained reasons.[48]

From the records alone, it is unclear whether GEO failed to share these records with ICE, or whether the ICE Field Office failed to enter them into the SRMS database. But this appears consistent with a broader pattern noted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General in its September 2017 on the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill people. After a review of practices at seven facilities, including the NWDC, the inspectors concluded, “The ICE field offices we reviewed did not record and promptly report all instances of segregation to ICE headquarters, nor did their system properly reflect all required reviews of ongoing segregation cases per ICE guidance.”[49] Despite ICE’s commitment to remedy these problems when the report was published, the more recent data reviewed by UWCHR suggests that they persist.

Unexplained gaps in public reporting by ICE

This obfuscation is not confined to the local level. In attempting to access records that would permit a deeper understanding of the circumstances behind solitary placements at the NWDC, UWCHR researchers were repeatedly stymied by contradictory responses from ICE. For example, despite the agency’s own requirements that information be compiled in the SRMS, an electronic database, agency attorneys argued that providing information on all solitary placements—not just ones longer than 14 days—would require the agency to manually search hardcopy A-files of individual detainees, a process that was impossible because the relevant Federal Records Centers where hardcopy files were stored were closed until further notice due to COVID-19.[50]

ICE has told Congress that “SRMS provides a centralized historical record of all segregation cases” (emphasis added).[51] Yet in conversations with UWCHR’s attorneys, ICE’s counsel indicated the opposite was true, insisting that SRMS only contains records of placements over 14 days or in cases of known special vulnerabilities.

Whichever the case may be, ICE appears to respond to requests for public information about segregation by only providing information about placements logged in SRMS, while providing data reflecting many more placements to internal investigators. For example, a June 24-26, 2014 DHS inspection report for NWDC states, “Documentation reflects there were 776 assignments to segregation in the past year,”[52] whereas placements reported to ICE via SRMS amount to only 106 total segregation placements during the same period. The numbers provided to UWCHR are consistent with those reported to investigators from POGO and the ICIJ—yet the difference between these numbers and those given to DHS inspectors is eightfold. As a result, almost 86% of the placements in solitary confinement at the NWDC were not reflected in information given to the public until now.[53]

As a result of these discrepancies, it is important to be clear: no one really knows how many people are held, for how long, in solitary confinement in the NWDC or other ICE detention facilities.

Conclusion

Multiple elected officials have written letters, and then further follow-up letters, demanding information about the use of solitary confinement.[54] Many studies[55] have been conducted with the limited data provided publicly by ICE. New federal legislation has been proposed to effectively ban most instances of solitary confinement in immigration detention and mandate increased transparency about those placements deemed necessary.[56] Yet these efforts have yet to produce any appreciable change in the extraordinarily limited access to information we have about the use of solitary confinement for civil detainees in the United States today; nor have they produced any accountability in cases where existing rules have been violated, despite a growing number of deaths in detention.

Although questions remain, given the agency’s record of flouting rules, concealing information, and declining to address even failures as stark as deaths in detention, we cannot conclude that further investigations are necessary. Rather, what is needed is decisive action to protect people from these institutions.

Next section: COVID-19 & Health Standards →

 

Notes

[1] The Northwest Detention Center is also sometimes referred to as the Northwest ICE Processing Center or Tacoma ICE Processing Center.

[2] Dedicated ICE facilities are facilities that house only ICE detainees. They include both privately and publicly owned and run detention centers.

[3] ICE lacks the authority to detain people pursuant to criminal charges, so all of the migrants detained at the NWDC are held in civil (also known as administrative) detention. Some may have previously served criminal sentences in other facilities.

[4] UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), Country report visit to the United States of America, A/HRC/36/37/Add.2, ¶ 21.

[5] Rule 43, paragraph 1: The United Nations Standards of rules for the treatment of prisoners (“Nelson Mandela Rules”). Rule 43, paragraphs 1-2.

[6] Directive 11065.1, Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees, September 2013.

[7] US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Performance-Based National Detention Standards 2011 (PBNDS 2011), Revised 2016, p. 172.

[8] PBNDS 2011, p. 176.

[9] See, for example, Carmen Molina Acosta, “Psychological Torture: ICE Responds to COVID-19 with Solitary Confinement,The Intercept, August 24, 2020. ICE’s ERO COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements (Version 5.0, October 27, 2020) addresses this critique by stating, “Due to limited housing units within many correctional facilities, individuals may be medically isolated in spaces used for administrative or disciplinary segregation, however medical isolation shall be operationally distinct from administrative or disciplinary segregation to provide access to programs and services to the fullest extent possible as clinically permitted.”

[10] See, for example, Hannah Rappleye, Andrew W. Lehren, Spencer Woodman, Vanessa Swales and Maryam Saleh, “Thousands of Immigrants Suffer in Solitary Confinement in U.S. Detention Centers,” NBC News, May 20, 2019

[11] Gov. Jay Inslee wrote to DHS on October 5, 2018, expressing concerns about health and safety conditions at the NWDC; he never received a response, and then wrote again on November 28, 2018, demanding an independent investigation following the death of Mergansana Amar in solitary confinement. This demand, too, appears to have gone unanswered. Similarly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a June 21, 2019 letter posing questions to ICE about the use of solitary confinement, but received no response, prompting her to send a November 1, 2019 follow-up letter “demanding answers.” On October 23, 2019, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Adam Smith sent a letter to the DHS Office of the Inspector General demanded an investigation into the use of solitary confinement at the NWDC. No response has been made public.

[12] Ellen Gallagher, “The Other Problem with ICE Detention: Solitary Confinement,The Washington Post, August 28, 2019

[13] Project on Government Oversight, “ISOLATED: ICE Confines Some Detainees with Mental Illness in Solitary for Months”, August 14, 2019

[14] Spencer Woodman and Ben Hallman, “Solitary Confinement in US Immigration Facilities, Explained”, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, May 21, 2019.

[15] Dedicated facilities are centers which exclusively house ICE detainees. As noted by the authors of the POGO report, comparisons between detention facilities based on ICE SRMS records may be skewed by missing and incomplete data, or differences in reporting practices between facilities. However, this data remains the only publicly available source for comparative analysis of the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention.

[16] Longer average solitary stays at NWDC during this period are not readily explained by an over-representation of “detainee-requested” or “protective custody” segregation placements, which tend to be longer than other categories of placements. In both of these categories, segregation placements at NWDC were about twice as long on average than for similar placements at other facilities nationwide. Excluding segregation stays under 14 days also did not affect NWDC’s high rank for average stay length. For more on this, see the data appendix to this report.

[17] 382 of the NWDC’s 453 reported solitary placements from September 2013 to March 2020 lasted longer than 15 days. 461 placements were reported in total for this time period, but 8 placements were incomplete at the time of production of the dataset released to UWCHR. These placements have been excluded from analysis of segregation stay length. See the data appendix regarding the second installment of ICE SRMS data for NWDC for more information.

[18] ICE ERO Custody Management Division dataset dated November 6, 2017 released via FOIA. Published by National Immigrant Justice Center, ICE Detention Facilities as of November 2017.

[19] Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2020 Congressional Justification, p. 4.

[20] For more, see data appendix.

[21] Per ICE rules, stays in solitary confinement are only required to be reported in the SRMS when a person spends more than 14 consecutive days in solitary; when they spend a total of 14 days in any 21 day period in solitary; or when they are placed in solitary despite having a special vulnerability. (See U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 11065.1: Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees, September 4, 2013.)

[22] See the data appendix comparing the RHU, SMU, SRMS 1, and SRMS 2 datasets for more detail.

[23] Stay lengths here are computed exclusive of the first placement day; i.e. placements of less than 24 hours are counted as 0 days. The minimum placement lengths for the SMU and RHU datasets are 0 days; for the SRMS 1 and SRMS 2 datasets, minimum placement length is 1 day. For more detail, see the data appendix comparing the RHU, SMU, SRMS 1, and SRMS 2 datasets.

[24] Unlike the other datasets, the “GEOtrack” or “SMU” dataset records housing assignments within the segregation management unit; if an individual is moved from one cell to another while remaining in solitary confinement, that would generate a new record. We would therefore expect this dataset to report more, shorter placements compared to other internal GEO records. Counts of long stays could be either under- or over-represented: for example, a 28-day total stay with one housing move could be split into 2 14-day housing assignments, or into one 27-day assignment and one 1-day assignment. Because the dataset includes no unredacted individual identifiers, it is impossible to track individual placements across housing assignments. For more, see the data appendices to this report.

[25] See, for example, Keramet Reiter et al., “Psychological Distress in Solitary Confinement: Symptoms, Severity, and Prevalence in the United States, 2017–2018,” American Journal of Public Health, January 2020

[26] UN General Assembly resolution 70/175, annex, The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules), adopted on 17 December 2015. Emphasis added.

[27] For example, the PBNDS mandates that any time an individual with known vulnerabilities, including serious mental illness is detained, ICE personnel must clear this with the Field Office Director, and notify ICE headquarters, in order to ensure accommodations are sufficient to their needs. See PBNDS 2011, p. 70-71.

[28] The directive defines “special vulnerabilities” as follows: “Detainees with special vulnerabilities include those who are known to be suffering from mental illness or serious medical illness; who have a disability or are elderly, pregnant, or nursing; who would be susceptible to harm in general population due in part to their sexual orientation or gender identity; or who have been victims -in or out of ICE custody-of sexual assault, torture, trafficking, or abuse.” ICE Directive 11065.1, Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees, September 2013, p. 2.

[29] PBNDS 2011, p. 172.

[30] Spencer Woodman and Ben Hallman, “Solitary Confinement in US Immigration Facilities, Explained”, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, May 21, 2019.

[31] The data examined included all reported solitary placements from January 1, 2016 to to May 4, 2018.

[32] Project on Government Oversight, “ISOLATED: ICE Confines Some Detainees with Mental Illness in Solitary for Months”, August 14, 2019.

[33] For details on the figures cited in this section, see the data appendix for the second installment of ICE SRMS data for NWDC,

[34] Among the total 156 people flagged with either “mental illness” or “serious mental illness” assigned to solitary confinement for any reason, the longest placement was 299 days; the average placement length was 48 days, and the median was 30 days.

[35] The Nelson Mandela Rules for the treatment of prisoners stipulate, in Rule 43, paragraph 1: “In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be prohibited: (a) Indefinite solitary confinement; (b) Prolonged solitary confinement. Prolonged solitary confinement is defined in rule 44 as ”solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days.”

[36] U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Detention Oversight Compliance Inspection. Enforcement and Removal Operations, Seattle Field Office, Northwest Detention Center. June 24-26, 2014, p. 23

[37] CRCL Complaint Log for NWDC, case 84; under FOIA, UWCHR researchers have requested further information about this case and are currently awaiting response.

[38] Letter from Gov. Jay Inslee to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Acting Inspector General John V. Kelley, November 28, 2018.

[39] Ellen Gallagher, Office of Special Counsel Disclosure of Information Statement, September 20, 2014; available via DocumentCloud, contributed by Spencer Woodman, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

[40] See, for example, the case of Jesús Chávez Flores, detailed below.

[41] Spencer Woodman, Karrie Kehoe, Maryam Saleh, and Hannah Rappleye, “Solitary Voices: Thousands of Immigrants Suffer In US Solitary Confinement”, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, May 21, 2019.

[42] ACLU of Washington, “CLS and ACLU Protect Detainees’ Free Speech Rights at the Northwest Detention Center”, May 12, 2014.

[43] ACLU of Washington, Jesús Chávez Flores v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, October 10, 2018.

[44] See PBNDS 2011, section “3.1 Disciplinary System”. For example, “At each step of the disciplinary and appeal process, the detainee shall be advised in writing of his/her rights in a language he/she understands, and translation or interpretation services shall be provided as needed.” (p. 214) and “Detainees before the IDP shall be afforded a staff representative, upon request, or automatically if the detainee is illiterate, has limited English language skills or otherwise needs special assistance.” (p. 215)

[45] ACLU of Washington, Jesús Chávez Flores v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, October 10, 2018.

[46] This lack of compliance with ICE’s “due process” rules governing disciplinary segregation does not appear to be unique: a December 2017 report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General investigating conditions in several other facilities found that “Staff did not always tell detainees why they were being segregated, nor did they always communicate detainees’ rights in writing or provide appeal forms for those put in punitive lock-down or placed in segregation. In multiple instances, detainees were disciplined, including being segregated or locked down in their cells, without adequate documentation in the detainee’s file to justify the disciplinary action. For example, one detainee reported being locked down for multiple days for sharing coffee with another detainee.” (Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Detention Facilities, OIG-18-32, December 11, 2017)

[47] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 11065.1: Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees, September 4, 2013.

[48] See the data appendix comparing the RHU, SMU, SRMS 1, and SRMS 2 datasets for more detail.

[49] Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, ICE Field Offices Need to Improve Compliance with Oversight Requirements for Segregation of Detainees with Mental Health Conditions, OIG-17-119, September 29, 2017.

[50] April 15, 2020 email from Michelle Lambert (Assistant United States Attorney, Western District of Washington) to Jordan Clark, Associate at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

[51] Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Budget Overview Fiscal Year 2017 Congressional Justification, p. 54.

[52] U.S. DHS ICE, Office of Detention Oversight Compliance Inspection. Enforcement and Removal Operations, Seattle Field Office, Northwest Detention Center. June 24-26, 2014, p. 27.

[53] Similar reports for other ICE detention facilities the periods covered by solitary data released to ICIJ, POGO, and UWCHR are not readily available due to apparent technical problems with the ICE Office of Detention Oversight website. For more, see the data appendix analyzing national data sources on solitary confinement in immigration detention.

[54] Gov. Jay Inslee wrote to DHS on October 5, 2018, expressing concerns about health and safety conditions at the NWDC; he never received a response, and then wrote again on November 28, 2018, Governor Jay Inslee demanding an independent investigation following the death of Mergansana Amar in solitary confinement. This demand, too, appears to have gone unanswered, as no such investigation has occurred to date. Similarly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a June 21, 2019 letter posing questions to ICE about the use of solitary confinement, but received no response, prompting her to send a November 1, 2019 follow-up letter “demanding answers.” On October 23, 2019, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Adam Smith sent a letter to the DHS Office of the Inspector General demanded an investigation into the use of solitary confinement at the NWDC. No response has been made public.

[55] For example, see Spencer Woodman, “U.S. isolates detained immigrants from majority-black countries at high rate, study finds,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, April 21, 2020.

[56] Spencer Woodman, “Legislation Would Force ICE to Sharply Curtail Solitary Confinement”, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, November 14, 2019.