'This is criminal': Whistleblower reports that ICE held thousands of gay, trans, and disabled immigrants in solitary confinement

'This is criminal': Whistleblower reports that ICE held thousands of gay, trans, and disabled immigrants in solitary confinement
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) SWAT officers.
Human Rights

New reports surfaced on Tuesday about the Department of Homeland Security's use of solitary confinement, where it has placed thousands of immigrants in solitary confinement due to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and disabilities.


Ellen Gallagher, a DHS policy adviser-turned-whistleblower, shared her knowledge of what she called the "torture" of more than 8,000 immigrants by the U.S. government with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a group which includes NBC News and The Intercept.

At least 8,488 immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention between 2012 and 2017 were held in solitary confinement under both the Obama and Trump administrations, according to Gallagher and documents that were obtained by the ICIJ through the Freedom of Information Act.

Only about half of the cases detailed in the documents involved detainees who had been accused of misconduct that could endanger others; the other half were placed in solitary confinement due to so-called "security risks" they posed—including the use of canes or other mobility aids due to physical disabilities, their sexual orientation, or the fact that they identified as transgender.

"We have created and continue to support a system that involves widespread abuse of human beings," Gallagher told the ICIJ. "People were being brutalized."

Gallagher first found internal documents detailing the use of solitary confinement in 2014, and tried for five years to alert the federal government.

"I came to believe that many of the fact patterns featured in the segregation reports and in the other documents that I reviewed fell within the description of what had been deemed torture," she said.

The United Nations expert on torture said in 2011 that the use of solitary confinement qualifies as "torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," and has called for the practice to be used only in exceptional cases—and then only for a maximum of 15 days.

At ICE, Gallagher said, "Solitary confinement was being used as the first resort, not the last resort."

Critics of the U.S. immigrant detention system denounced ICE on social media, calling the practice "criminal" and "barbaric" and demanding the agency be defunded or abolished altogether.

The ICIJ interviewed dozens of immigrants from all over the world who were formerly or currently being held in ICE detention for civil immigration violations.

Immigrants who had spent weeks or months in solitary confinement reported having been placed there after complaining of abuse by guards, being falsely accused of kissing or touching other detainees, and being labeled a safety risk because they used prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, canes, or a cast for a broken arm. More than 60 detainees were placed in solitary confinement for having physical disabilities.

More than 370 people who were sent into solitary cells—where detainees typically spend 22 to 23 hours per day with limited or no access to books, personal items, or even photographs of loved one—had to be placed on suicide watch. Detainees with mental illnesses committed self-harm at least 50 times.

A number of transgender immigrants told reporters that they had been placed in solitary confinement solely because of their gender identity.

"The only thing they told me was that it was because of the way I looked," one woman, identified as Kelly, told the ICIJ. Kelly was kept away from other detainees at a detention center in Louisiana for four months beginning in late 2017.

"They claimed it was for security reasons," she said. "I told them from day one that I didn't want to be locked up almost 24 hours a day, alone in a cell, without medical attention."

At least 13 immigrants who have died in ICE custody spent time in solitary confinement. Seven of them committed suicide while in solitary, and the agency acknowledged mistakes that it had made in the cases of at least eight of the people.

Gallagher told the ICIJ that she felt driven to come forward about her findings after years of trying to draw the federal government's attention to the use of solitary confinement.

"I tend to think that staying silent does not honor the pain of the people who have been treated in this inhumane way," Gallagher told reporters.

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