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Doctors Demand Biden End Solitary Confinement In Immigration Prisons

Above photo: An immigrant makes a call from his “segregation cell” at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013, in Adelanto, California. John Moore / Getty Images.

Hundreds of physicians and other health professionals are demanding the Biden administration end the use of solitary confinement in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prisons. The letter comes after reports of multiple suicide attempts by immigrants incarcerated at a privately run ICE facility made national headlines.

President Joe Biden pledged on the 2020 campaign trail to end solitary confinement in federal prisons “with very limited exceptions,” and time for change could be running out. Reliance on solitary confinement in ICE jails and prisons — the extremely dangerous and potentially deadly practice of isolating people in tiny cells for weeks, months and even years at time — would likely explode in scope if former President Trump wins the November election and attempts to implement an unprecedented crackdown on undocumented families.

Trump has pledged to round up and deport millions of undocumented adults and children, which would further clog already backlogged immigration courts and likely require a massive expansion of detention capacity in jails, prisons and border camps. Facing pressure from the GOP over migrants arriving at the southern border, Biden issued an executive order Tuesday that limits the number of people crossing in the first place.

In an open letter to Biden and top administration officials, 475 doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals pointed to the death of Charles Daniel as part of their appeal. A citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, Daniel was found dead in March while in solitary confinement at a notorious ICE prison in Washington State. Internal records show he was held in solitary for a total of 1,244 days, divided between two stints.

Solidarity activists supporting hunger strikers at the ICE prison reported of multiple suicide attempts by other detainees following Daniel’s death. They believe Daniel died of suicide, but ICE’s legally mandated report to Congress on the incident does not include a cause of death. Members of Congress and researchers at the University of Washington have called for an independent investigation, according to the Seattle Times.

Mr. Charles Daniel was in detention for almost four years, and spent virtually that entire time in solitary confinement, despite the fact that he was known to have serious mental health issues,” the letter to Biden states. “ICE has repeatedly failed to respond effectively to the mountain of evidence that keeping people in solitary confinement is both unnecessary and dangerous, and at times life-threatening.”

The letter to Biden was organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility, which worked with researchers at Harvard to produce “Endless Nightmare,” a comprehensive report on solitary confinement in ICE facilities. Released in February, before Daniel’s death, the report found that ICE oversaw more than 14,000 solitary confinement orders between 2018 and 2023.

The average duration of confinement was one month but some immigrants were isolated for up to two years. Internal ICE records obtained by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights show that many people detained in solitary confinement had preexisting mental health conditions and other vulnerabilities, such as trauma from fleeing violence in another country.

Even brief stints in solitary increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm and suicide, while prolonged confinement can lead to lasting brain damage, hallucinations and reduced cognitive function. While ICE updated protocols to limit solitary confinement, especially of people with health conditions, the “Endless Nightmare” report found that ICE contractors “fail to comply with ICE guidelines and directives regarding solitary confinement.”

“Our letter [to Biden] shows that medical professionals across the country will not stand for the U.S. government subjecting immigrants to extremely punitive and dangerous conditions,” said Katherine Peeler, a coauthor of the report and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, in a statement.

Along with solitary confinement, immigration prisons have faced protests from health professionals, civil rights groups and incarcerated immigrants themselves over allegations of dangerous living conditions, forced labor, physical abuse and extreme medical malpractice. During the Trump administration, a chaotic immigration crackdown caused the number of immigration prisoners to spike before COVID-19 forced jailers to reduce the incarcerated population.

The average number of immigrants detained each day by ICE roughly doubled from 2015 to 2019, but Trump’s policies did not significantly increase deportations. Immigration advocates worry Trump has learned from his first term, when officials were forced to backpedal after the infamous family separation policy ripped children from their parents and became an administrative and public relations disaster.

Fearmongering about migrants at the southern border is at the center of Trump’s 2024 election pitch. Reports have already emerged about his campaign’s authoritarian plan for building mass detention camps. Estimates for the number of undocumented people in the U.S. range from 11 million to 15 million, and Trump has pledged to deport all of them, a process that would require arresting and incarcerating large number of people at a time.

Ivonne Rodriguez, communications director for the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, says Trump’s proposal for a mass deportation scheme is not just rhetoric. Stephen Miller, the top Trump aide known for his ties to white nationalists, and other far right allies have developed plans to deploy the military and deputize local police forces to carry out massive roundups resulting in detention and deportations.

Writing in El Diario, New York’s largest Spanish newspaper, Rodriguez explained this week what Miller’s plans would mean for her community in New York City.

“Living in New York as an immigrant from Honduras in a mixed-status family, I know Trump is talking about deploying the military to my community,” Rodriguez wrote. “They are promising to come to separate families and decimate my neighborhood with vows of building a ‘red state army.’ An army Miller hopes to send to blue states like New York to carry out the community raids along my streets.”

The number of people incarcerated by ICE would explode under such a plan. Ten people have already died in ICE custody during the first eight months of the 2024 fiscal year, more than twice as many as last year and three times more than in 2022, according to federal data crunched by NBC News.

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