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Hirono, Colleagues Urge Biden Administration to Phase Out Solitary Confinement

~ Within the past year, the number of people ICE placed in solitary confinement skyrocketed by 61 percent ~

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) joined 11 of her Senate colleagues in sending a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS) Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Patrick Lechleitner calling for ICE to limit and phase out solitary confinement while finding meaningful alternatives so that detainees receive the same rights as those in ICE detention, including access to counsel, telephone, visitation, food and hygiene. In the letter—led by Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—the senators also call for DHS to specifically end its misuse of solitary confinement in immigration detention, especially for people with mental health and chronic medical conditions, LGBTQ+ individuals, among other vulnerable populations.   

“Under no circumstances should ICE use solitary confinement as a form of discipline in civil immigration detention. ICE should also prioritize vulnerable individuals for release into post-release care plans whenever appropriate, rather than placing them in solitary confinement in the first place,” wrote the lawmakers. “New practices must also ensure that those in solitary confinement receive the same rights as others in ICE detention, including the same access to counsel, telephones, visitation, food, and hygiene.”

As punishment for minor infractions, such as using profanity, submitting a complaint, or participating in a hunger strike, ICE placed individuals in solitary confinement for months and even years. From 2018 to 2023, ICE placed people in solitary confinement more than 14,000 times and left them in an enclosed cell without human contact for more than 22 hours per day. Once in solitary confinement, people endure additional punishment, including being denied access to legal visits, receiving reduced portion sizes at meals, and being forced to sleep on cement or steel platforms. Since solitary confinement has shown to carry serious health risks such as brain damage, hallucinations, PTSD, self-harm, and even suicide, the senators are concerned that ICE’s solitary confinement may constitute cruel and unusual punishment, which would violate the U.S. Constitution.

To better understand ICE’s solitary confinement practices, the senators request answers to the following questions by April 5, 2024: 

  1. What steps does ICE plan to take to limit solitary confinement, including establishing meaningful alternatives to solitary confinement and phasing out its use in immigration detention? 
  2. For each full calendar year since 2017, how many times has ICE placed individuals in solitary confinement?  
  3. What barriers does ICE face in documenting alternatives to solitary confinement? 
  4. Since 2013, what steps has ICE taken to comply with its internal guidance governing solitary confinement? 
  5. What steps has ICE taken to respond to the recommendations of the Government Accountability Office and the DHS Inspector General in the reports cited above? 

In addition to Senators Hirono, Markey, Durbin, and Warren, the letter was also signed by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Laphonza Butler (D-CA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Patty Murray (D-WA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Peter Welch (D-VT).

The full text of the letter is available here.