It is cruel and inhumane to keep prison inmates in solitary confinement for indefinite periods or to put them there for arbitrary reasons. Studies indicate that inmates subjected to prolonged isolation are at risk for mental illness and suicide. That's led human rights groups and the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture, among others, to conclude that solitary confinement should be abolished, with very few exceptions.
Yet its use is widespread, not only in state and federal prisons but in immigration detention facilities. About 1% of immigrants detained by the U.S. government at any given time are confined to small cells, by themselves, and are allowed out for only one hour a day — even though they pose no danger to others, according to a report released this year by the National Immigrant Justice Center. That's especially disturbing when you consider that immigration detainees aren't serving criminal sentences but are being held to ensure that they appear for their civil deportation cases.
Now the Department of Homeland Security has unveiled new rules aimed at curbing the use of solitary confinement. The changes, if implemented properly, could help protect detainees' health and ensure that their ability to fight their legal cases isn't undermined because their telephone access is limited to one hour a day.
Among the most important changes is a requirement that all immigration detention centers, including local jails and private facilities that contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, report to federal officials when a detainee is isolated. The new rules also call for the facilities to justify in writing to federal officials why any immigrant has been in solitary confinement for longer than two weeks. The old rules required the facilities to report such cases only after one month.
The new policy explicitly forbids placing immigrants in solitary confinement against their will because of personal characteristics, such as gender identity or sexual orientation, and adds reporting safeguards for vulnerable populations, including the disabled, those with mental health issues and victims of sexual abuse. That provision is key because transgender detainees are often placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods by jail officials who argue that it's for the detainees' protection, even though it can cause more harm than good, human rights groups argue.
The Department of Homeland Security's decision to revamp its policy is welcome. Now if only Congress would enact stricter guidelines, like those contained in the Senate immigration reform bill that limit the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention to 15 days.