Dulce, a transgender detainee held for eight months in solitary confinement at Rappahannock Regional Jail in Virginia. Photo courtesy of John Nelson, johnnelsonphoto.com
Immigration to Limit Use of Solitary Confinement

By Sunnivie Brydum

Originally published on Advocate.com September 09 2013 3:29 PM ET

Detention centers used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will limit their use of solitary confinement and report each incident in which a detainee is singled out from the general population, according to a policy directive issued last week. 

The directive requires all detention facilities that contract with ICE to report when and why they are using solitary confinement for any detainee and mandates that solitary confinement be used only as a last resort. The directive further forbids placing detainees in solitary confinement solely because of personal characteristics, such as being LGBT. The new policy also requires special reporting on vulnerable populations, including the disabled and mentally ill, LGBT people, and victims of sexual abuse who are being kept in immigration detention. 

Human rights groups agree that transgender detainees are especially likely to be placed in solitary confinement as a result of their gender nonconformity, with prison officials claiming it is the only way to keep them "safe" in gender-segregated populations. Transgender prisoners are often placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time that constitute torture according to international human rights conventions. 

"This is a very important step," said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality. But, she said, "we remain concerned that the directive does not eliminate the use of solitary confinement for extended periods and does not legally bind ICE's contract facilities themselves. We are also concerned that the reporting period it establishes exceeds the 15 days which the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture has determined can have serious and irreversible effects on an individual's health."

According to NCTE, solitary confinement usually involves a detainee being kept in a small cell for 23 hours each day, with barely any contact with other people. A 2012 study revealed that solitary confinement is widely used in immigration detention, is often poorly monitored, and is usually harmful to the immigrant's health. The same study found that many immigrants abandon their claim for legal residency and accept deportation simply to escape "the hole" of solitary, according to NCTE. ICE's own survey determined that 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement on any given day. 

For more background on this issue, read The Advocate's award-winning feature on transgender immigrants held in solitary confinement.