Study discovers high rates of solitary confinement in ICE detention facilities
A UC Davis professor recently authored a paper looking at the conditions inside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities.
Caitlin Patler, an associate professor of sociology at UC Davis and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Poverty Research, in the Migration Studies Cluster, the Social Control Cluster, and the Human Rights Program, wrote the paper alongside two other co-authors, one of whom is also associated with the university.
The paper, titled “The Black Box Within a Black Box: Solitary Confinement Practices in a Subset of U.S. Immigrant Detention Facilities,” was based on research conducted by Patler and looked at why civil and administration immigration centers, like ICE facilities, mimic the prison system, bypassing limits to detention and rights to an attorney that the criminal justice system affords.
Nicholas Branic, one of the co-authors of the study, explained the title of the paper was meant to reflect the lack of transparency about detention facilities.
“As the title of our paper suggests, immigration detention facilities are a modern ‘black box’ in that we have a limited knowledge of how they operate and what goes on within their walls,” Branic said via email. “The recent investigations into child-separation policies within immigration detention facilities serve as a case in point, as the in-depth coverage of certain facilities that we saw was unprecedented and gave the public a view of how these facilities are operated.”
The study challenged understandings of detention centers as “non-punitive,” Patler said.
“Detention is not considered a punishment, legally,” Patler said. “It’s an administrative process. The argument is that it’s justifiable for something like indefinite detention.”
The study makes clear that immigration law is civil, as opposed to criminal, and “therefore, legally speaking immigrant detainees are not serving a sentence.”
“Despite this legal difference, scholars have drawn parallels between the systems of incarceration under criminal and immigration law,” the study states.
Both immigration centers and the prison system use solitary confinement for punishment under the potential guise of “protective custody,” according to Patler.
Patler accumulated her data via Freedom of Information Act requests. Through these requests, she examined 1,193 incidents of solitary confinement from the beginning of the instatement of ICE’s data collection beginning in 2013 throughout 2016.
The three authors of the paper analyzed six facilities under the jurisdiction of the California Field Offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Patler looked at solitary confinement cases both under and over 14 days. She found the mean time period of these cases was three to four weeks, exceeding the first parameter.
Patler found that one of the only outcomes the study could unpack, given limited data, was facilities’ motivation for placing detainees in solitary confinement, and for how long. Patler utilized a computer model fed by datasets on detention facility data and detainee data to analyze why detainees ended up in solitary confinement.
“Results reveal significant differences in the use of solitary confinement by gender, mental illness status, whether the confined individual had an attorney, Field Office jurisdiction, and individual facility,” the study states. “In addition, we document the extensive use of solitary confinement for ‘protective custody’ and show that this category is potentially punitive in nature.”
According to Patler, solitary confinement is an inhumane solution, especially in civil and administrative processes like immigration.
“There’s well established research within criminal law about solitary confinement, led by psychiatrists and doctors [that] shows in that as little as 10 to 14 days, you can see the onset of mental health problems in people who are subject to solitary confinement,” Patler said.
The study found that only 14 percent of detained individuals are represented by an attorney, which Patler described as unfortunately low. Because immigration proceedings are civil and not criminal, there is no mandated public defender if a detained individual cannot afford a lawyer.
According to Patler, ICE did not include information for almost a quarter of the cases, so these individuals may or may not have had an attorney. Additionally, Patler found a disproportionate rate of solitary confinement used for protective custody, which could be either protecting the detainee from themselves or from other detainees.
The study found that most protective custody cases were “detainees who had never broken facility rules.”
Patler found that disciplinary cases accounted for only 48 percent, while 52 percent were non-disciplinary.
“ICE says they are doing this for individuals safety, or safety of detained population — to protect others from them or themselves,” Patler said.
Patler discussed how ICE provided “very shoddy information,” with non-specific information including gaps in detainee information. According to Patler, “there is no reason that ICE doesn’t have this data.”
“The variable for the most missing data was attorney status,” Patler said. ”And other missing data was qualitative comments. Discipline — what’s the gradient? Are people who start a fight, or something smaller, getting the same treatment?”
According to the study, only “23% of protective custody cases included additional text information.”
To Patler, what is most troubling is the fact that solitary confinement, which exacerbates mental illness, is being used to quarantine mentally ill patients who could be better treated by a psychiatrist.
“The findings suggest that immigrant detention facilities may be relying on solitary confinement to manage the behavior and needs of mentally ill detainees,” the study sates. “Indeed, our analyses reveal that over 57% of solitary confinement cases involved an individual with a mental illness, though these individuals are estimated to make up only about 15% of the ICE detainee population. … People who are mentally ill are overrepresented in 0-14 and over 14 days.”
Patler discussed widespread misconceptions about ICE detainees.
“People get a concept these are people who have just illegally entered, yet many of these people are in the interior [of America],” Patler said. “There is plenty of documented people [in ICE facilities].”
In Patler’s eyes, there should be no detaining of immigrants outside of the legal, criminal justice system.
“We don’t need immigration detention,” Patler said. “They are not serving a sentence. There is no reason to detain these people in the first place — immigration is being criminalized.”
Written by Aaron Liss — firstname.lastname@example.org