(A new ICE directive limits the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention facilities. Photo/AP Images)

New ICE directive limiting solitary confinement a good step, but issue is compliance, say rights groups

Immigration reform activists and human and civil rights organizations say ICE’s new directive limiting the use of solitary confinement for immigrant detainees is a good first step – but the key is enforcement.

“Solitary confinement in both immigration detention and the criminal justice system is cruel, expensive, and ineffective,” said Ruthie Epstein, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement.  “If strictly enforced throughout the ICE detention system – including at county jails and contract facilities – ICE’s new policy could represent significant progress in curtailing this inhumane practice.”

According to the new directive released on Wednesday, “placement in administrative segregation due to a special vulnerability should be used only as a last resort and when no other viable housing options exist.”  The directive also says “ICE shall take additional steps to ensure appropriate review and oversight of decisions to retain detainees in segregated housing for over 14 days,”  It also states facilities must provide  special reporting requirements for vulnerable populations, including people with medical or mental issues and disabiliteis, pregnant or nursing women and the elderly, and those who might be at risk of harm due to sexual orientation, gender identity or sexual assault.

Speaking on Friday to NBC Latino, Epstein stresses the concern is enforcement.  Half of ICE detainees are placed in county jails, she explains, adding it will be a challenge to ensure the new practices are followed not just in county jails but privately contracted facilities.

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Physicians for Human Rights issued a September 2012 report,  Invisible in Isolation: The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigration Detention, in which they reported that “solitary confinement frequently is used as a control mechanism. Researchers met individuals who were held in solitary confinement after they helped other detainees file complaints about detention conditions. People who are mentally ill and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) often are assigned to solitary confinement because jail staff is unwilling to deal with their unique circumstances and/or because staff thinks of solitary confinement as a “protective” status for vulnerable populations.”

The report added that “of greatest concern is the apparent lack of strict, comprehensive, and independent oversight of segregation practices, which would help ensure that segregation is only used in extreme circumstances.”

After news of the directive, NIJC Executive Director Meg McCarthy said,  “We are pleased that ICE has responded to decades of advocacy on this issue and has finally made a serious effort to review and hold its contract facilities accountable for their use of solitary confinement, which is one of the harshest forms of punishment and is generally inappropriate and unnecessary,” adding “NIJC and our allies will remain vigilant to ensure the directive is meaningfully implemented and succeeds in preventing the suffering and abuses we’ve seen too often in the past.”

Claudia Valenzuela, Associate Director of Litigation for NIJC, says individuals working in these facilities need to be trained to understand why detainees are placed in immigration detention, and why solitary confinement should be a last resort.

“This is supposed to be a system for civil detention, not incarceration per se, and the goal is for the individual to comply with immigration requirements, not to punish them,” explains Valenzuela.

According to a New York Times report based on federal data, approximately 300 immigrant detainees on any given day are in solitary confinement while they are in the nation’s 50 largest detention facilities.

“Groups will be vigilantly watching how this process unfolds to make sure this new directive is consistent and uniform,” Valenzuela says.

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