The records reveal that dozens of detainees have been held in solitary for hundreds of days over the past four years, including one man who was held for more than 780 days. Under Trump, the number of solitary confinements lasting longer than 30 days has risen by 8 percent over the Obama years. Civil-rights lawyers say that it is illegal for detention officials to subject people to prolonged solitary confinement for behavior that results from mental illnesses that those very officials diagnosed.
As the number of detainees has increased, so too has the severity of their treatment during detention. “Things have gotten far worse,” Altaf Saadi told me. A neurologist, Saadi has been conducting evaluations at immigrant-detention centers over the past several years, including among detainees placed in solitary confinement. She explained that under the Obama administration, there was more prosecutorial discretion; people with mental or physical disabilities, as well as pregnant women and LGBTQ people, were typically not put in detention. Under Trump, that discretion was removed.
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Obama officials put at least 27 people in solitary confinement for hunger striking in 2016; that number rose under Trump in 2017 to 54, according to records obtained by The Atlantic. Immigrant advocates say that putting hunger strikers in solitary is a form of retaliation that violates detainees’ basic human right to decide whether to eat. Detention-facility operators deny using solitary confinement as a means of punishment for hunger strikers.
In exit interviews and case materials, immigrants described varying reasons for being sent to solitary, including disciplinary infractions such as destroying property or getting into fights with other detainees or guards. In many instances, however, the records cite seemingly capricious reasons for the use of solitary—hiding a banana under a mattress, an untidy cell, complaining about the food. (Roughly half of the instances of solitary confinement during Obama’s final year in office and during Trump’s first were for disciplinary reasons.)
The use of isolation for minor offenses was a source of intense frustration from some lawyers within the Obama administration, the documents show. “Detainee #54 received 14 days disciplinary segregation for failure to follow the meal procedure, #65 received 14 days for asking to pay an officer to buy him cigarettes, #97 received 30 days for ‘making perceived threats’ because he asked an officer for his address,” Gallagher, who at the time was a senior policy adviser in Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, wrote in an email to her colleagues on May 8, 2014. “To me, this is mind-numbing.”
One revealing record obtained by The Atlantic describes the case of an unnamed woman detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, in California, in the summer of 2017. (Neither Otay nor ICE answered questions about this case.) ICE doctors who carried out blood work when she was first detained informed her while she was in solitary confinement—for reasons that the records do not indicate—that she was pregnant, according to a summary complaint filed by the woman’s lawyer with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Once the woman was released into the general population, she experienced acute anxiety and took pills in an apparent suicide attempt, which staff at the hospital to which she was subsequently sent say caused a miscarriage. The woman was then returned to solitary confinement, where she was kept naked, despite still bleeding from the miscarriage.
The records provide no further indication of what eventually happened to the woman.