The black box within a black box: Solitary confinement practices in a subset of U.S. immigrant detention facilities

Abstract

In September 2013, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a directive regarding the use of solitary confinement for ICE detainees. Among other provisions, the directive mandated reporting on the rationale behind decisions to place a detainee into solitary confinement, with particular emphases on placements lasting more than 14 days and for reasons related to illness and other “special vulnerabilities.” This paper analyzes administrative data from ICE, gathered via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, on the use of solitary confinement per the 2013 ICE directive. The FOIA request covers 1193 incidents of solitary confinement from the beginning of the directive (September 2013) through the date of the FOIA request (September 2016), across six facilities under the jurisdiction of two California Field Offices (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Results reveal significant differences in the use of solitary confinement by gender, mental illness status, whether the confined individual had an attorney, Field Office jurisdiction, and individual facility. In addition, we document the extensive use of solitary confinement for “protective custody” and show that this category is potentially punitive in nature. Given the limited nature of access to information on ICE detainees, this is one of the only analyses of solitary confinement in immigrant detention facilities in the United States.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Though ICE uses “segregation” to describe its solitary confinement practices, we rely on the more commonly used term, “solitary confinement.”

  2. 2.

    According to the ICE directive, “Detainees with special vulnerabilities include those who are known to be suffering from mental illness or serious medical illness; who have a disability or are elderly, pregnant, or nursing; who would be susceptible to harm in general population due in part to their sexual orientation or gender identity; or who have been victims -in or out of ICE custody-of sexual assault, torture, trafficking, or abuse.”

  3. 3.

    Appendix 2 describes all variables provided in ICE’s report.

  4. 4.

    In contradiction to decades of research on the mental health impacts of solitary confinement, one 2011 report by O’Keefe et al. finds that prisoners in administrative segregation suffered no more psychological deterioration than those in the general prison population. However, experts have found serious methodological errors in the O’Keefe report (Grassian and Kupers 2011; Lovell and Toch 2011) and prison advocacy groups object to the study’s moral and legal implications (American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado 2010; Ridgeway and Casella 2010).

  5. 5.

    According to ICE, “Administrative segregation is a non-punitive form of separation from the general population for administrative reasons. Administrative segregation is authorized only as necessary to ensure the safety of the detainee, facility staff, and other detainees; the protection of property; or the security or good order of the facility, and therefore should be for the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions practicable, consistent with the rationale for placement.” In contrast, ICE defines disciplinary segregation as “a punitive form of separation from the general population for disciplinary reasons. Disciplinary segregation is authorized only pursuant to the order of a facility disciplinary panel, following a hearing in which the detainee is determined to have committed serious misconduct in violation of a facility rule, and only consistent with the Disciplinary Severity Scale from the applicable ICE detention standards, and only when alternative dispositions would inadequately regulate detainee behaviour.” (See “11065.1: Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees,” Issued September 4, 2013, Federal Enterprise Architecture Number: 306-112-002b. Available at: https://www.ice.gov/doclib/detention-reform/pdf/segregation_directive.pdf, Accessed September 7, 2017).

  6. 6.

    While no facility provides complete information on all three descriptive variables: Adelanto includes information for all three variables in 30% of cases, followed by Santa Ana Jail with 25%, Yuba County Jail with 22%, Theo Lacy Facility with 14%, and Sacramento County Jail-Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center with only 7%. In addition, some cases include very limited content (the first example below), while others are more detailed (the second example below). The first example provides no information beyond a relatively non-descriptive placement reason. In the second example, ICE implies a deterioration in mental health over time. A lack of certain types of description in some cases and not others does not necessarily indicate an absence of circumstances and could instead be due to differences in reporting practices by facilities or individual officers. We therefore interpret textual data analysis as descriptive rather than representative.

    Example 1: “Placed in AD SEG, because of Northern hispanic [sic] tattoos”

    Example 2: “On December 15, 2015, [name redacted] was released from medical observation and returned to administrative segregation under facility initiated protect custody due to his continued sexual behavior with other detainees. On December 29, 2015, ADF Compliance Unit completed 14 day review for [name redacted]. On January 14, 2016, ADF Compliance Unit completed 30 day review for [name redacted]. [name redacted] remains in facility initiated protective custody due to his continued display of disruptive and inappropriate behavior towards other detainees. Alternative housing options are currently being explored for [name redacted] including alternative facilities that may better suit the detainee's housing needs. On January 24, 2016, was transferred from segregation to medical holding for suicide watch.”

  7. 7.

    We note that the spreadsheet contained no information about the types of cases that constitute “other.” Given the difficulty in defining this outcome category, as well as the fact that it contained only eight cases, we opted to drop it from our bivariate and multivariate analyses. We also note the possibility that the reason for entry into solitary confinement could be different from the reason for continued placement. However, ICE provided only one placement reason per case (though a small minority of descriptive text entries reveal multiple reasons); we are therefore unable to systematically assess the characteristics of cases involving separate entry and continued placement.

  8. 8.

    We opt to include only cases for which we have full information available to calculate length of confinement. We note that our multivariate results do not change substantively when all missing cases are assigned a release date of October 18, 2016, which is the latest release date reported in any case in the ICE spreadsheet.

  9. 9.

    Santa Ana Jail in particular has a separate, segregated housing area for transgender detainees. It appears this type of segregation is not categorized as solitary confinement per ICE’s report, as only three cases in the dataset (two in Santa Ana Jail and one in Yuba County Jail) are specified as “Protective Custody: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT).”

  10. 10.

    Although ICE also provided information on cases involving individuals with serious illnesses and serious disabilities, these cases were very uncommon (only 18 in total) and all but three involved an individual who also had mental illness. We are therefore only able to examine mental illness in our analyses.

  11. 11.

    It is unclear whether data are missing at random or for some other reason. However, given the theoretical and empirical importance of attorney status, we include this variable in our multivariate analysis. Substantive results deviate in small but non-trivial ways when the attorney variable is not included. Results from models without the attorney variable are available from the authors upon request.

  12. 12.

    One other facility, California Correctional Facility (CCF), contained only 5 cases and was therefore excluded from further analyses. However, the lack of cases at CCF may also be substantively interesting, as it suggests the possibility that some facilities may use solitary confinement more frequently than others. Indeed, many facilities that house detainees in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Field Office jurisdictions did not appear in the dataset at all. However, without more information about the entire population of detained individuals in the AORs, we are unable to evaluate this possibility.

  13. 13.

    As of 2017, Adelanto has the capacity to hold 2000 men and women; it is estimated that 73,000 detainees have been held in the facility since it opened in 2011 (Esquivel 2017).

  14. 14.

    We began by estimating a Cox Proportional Hazards models, but found that control variables for mental illness and individual facilities violated the proportional hazards assumption, indicating that the distribution of different categories of these variables are not proportional across the variable for confinement length. We therefore opted to use a series of logistic regression models.

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Correspondence to Caitlin Patler.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Text of FOIA request (reference number: 2017-ICFO-01806)

This letter constitutes a request for records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), 5 U.S.C. §552 (2012), on behalf of [name redacted for peer review] (hereinafter “requestor”). Requestor seeks copies of all reports concerning the use of segregation in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, pursuant to the 2013 ICE directive regarding the use of segregation for ICE detainees (See “11065.1: Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees,” issued September 4, 2013, Federal Enterprise Architecture Number: 306-112-002b). This includes but is not limited to Field Office Reports to ICE Headquarters and quarterly Detention Monitoring Council (DMC) subcommittee reports to the full DMC and the Director (as laid out in “11065.1: Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE Detainees,” Issued September 4, 2013). Requestor seeks any and all reports from September 4, 2013 through September 30, 2016. Specifically, requestor seeks this information in regards to any detainee held for any period of time in a detention facility in the Central District of California.

Requestor requests a reduction in fees pursuant to 5 U.S.C. §552(a)(4)(ii)(II) (2012) (“fees shall be limited to reasonable standard charges for document duplication when records are not sought for commercial use and the request is made by…educational or noncommercial scientific institution”) and 6 C.F.R. §5.11(d)(1) (search fees shall not be charged to “educational institutions”). Requestor is an academic researcher at [university name redacted for peer review], which qualifies as an “educational institution” within the meaning of FOIA, 6 C.F.R. §5.11(b)(4) (2012) (defining “educational institution” as “an institution of undergraduate higher education [or] an institution of graduate higher education…that operates a program of scholarly research.”). Furthermore, the information requested is not sought for a commercial purpose. Requestor seeks the information for scholarly research on the immigration system. A summary of requestor’s scholarship can be found here: [website redacted for peer review].

Appendix 2: Non-redacted variables included in ICE FOIA spreadsheet

Variable Values provided by ICE Coded values for analysis Number of cases containing data
Gender Male; female Female = 0; male = 1 1193
Field office area of responsibility (AOR) LOS (Los Angeles); SFR (San Francisco) LOS (Los Angeles) = 1; SFR (San Francisco) = 2 1193
Facility Adelanto correctional facility (CA); Sacramento County Jail/Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (CA); Santa Ana City Jail (CA); Theo Lacy Facility (CA); Yuba County Jail (CA) Adelanto Correctional Facility = 1
Sacramento County Jail/Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center = 2
Santa Ana City Jail = 3
Theo Lacy Facility = 4
Yuba County Jail = 5
1193
Report type 14 Day; 30 Day Interval; 72 Hour 14 Day = 1
30 Day Interval = 2
72 Hour = 3
1193
Placement date [Lists date that detainee entered solitary confinement] Subtracted release date from placement date to calculate length of confinement 1193
Release date [Lists date that detainee left solitary confinement] Subtracted release date from placement date to calculate length of confinement 1148
Disciplinary Infraction [Describes rule violation. Responses reported in narrative as well as infraction codes from ICE disciplinary directives] [Kept original format] 426
Sanction length [Lists the number of days the detainee was assigned to solitary confinement] [Kept original format] 339
Attorney of record No; Yes No = 0; Yes = 1 910
Attorney notification No; Yes No = 0; Yes = 1 922
Detainee request Detainee Request; Facility-Initiated Facility-initiated placement = 0; detainee requested placement = 1 622
Compliance with detention standards No (n = 1); Yes (n = 492) [Kept original format] 493
Mental illness Mental illness; No; None; Yes No/None = 0; Yes/Mental Illness = 1 1184
Serious disability No; Yes No = 0; Yes = 1 1172
Placement reason Disciplinary; Facility Security Threat: Due to Seriousness of Criminal Conviction; Facility Security Threat: Gang Member Status (Not Protective Custody); Facility Security Threat: Other; Facility Security Threat: Violent or Disruptive Behavior; Hunger Strike; Medical: Disabled or Infirm; Medical: Observation; Medical: Other; Medical: Other Infectious Disease; Medical: Tuberculosis; Mental Illness; Other; Pending Investigation of Disciplinary Violation; Protective Custody: Criminal Offense (i.e. Sex Offender); Protective Custody: Gang Status (Protective Custody Only); Protective Custody: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT); Protective Custody: Other Detainee Safety; Suicide Risk Placement Disciplinary or Pending Investigation of Discipline = 1
Facility Security Threat (Any) = 2
Medical (Any) + Mental Illness = 3
Protective Custody (Any) + Suicide Risk Placement = 4
Other + Hunger Strike = 5
1193
Detailed reason [Lists narrative descriptions of why detainee was placed into solitary confinement] [Kept original format] 491
FO recommendation [Lists the recommendation of the Field Officer] [Kept original format] 475
Additional comments export [Lists a chronological description of the confinement, including dates of rules violations and outcome of disciplinary case evaluation] [Kept original format] 637
Special criteria No; Yes [Kept original format] 836

Appendix 3: Average daily detained population compared to solitary confinement cases, by facility

  Avg. daily population (FY2014–FY2016) (n = 2155) Proportion of total avg. daily population (n = 2155) Total solitary confinement cases (n = 1180) Proportion of total solitary confinement cases (n = 1180)
Adelanto 1288 0.60 947 0.80
Sacramento County Jail-Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center 150 0.07 69 0.06
Santa Ana Jail 167 0.08 68 0.06
Theo Lacy 353 0.16 29 0.02
Yuba County Jail 197 0.09 67 0.06
  1. Average daily population information for Adelanto, Sacramento City Jail-Rio Cosumnes, Santa Ana Jail, and Theo Lacy is from FOIA data accessed by Freedom for Immigrants (personal correspondence from Christina Fialho, Co-Founder/Executive Director of Freedom for Immigrants 2018). Average daily population information for Yuba County Jail is from the DHS Office of Detention Oversight and was available for the 2014 fiscal year only (Office of Detention Oversight 2014). Year-by-year estimates for average daily detained population and solitary confinement cases available upon request

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Patler, C., Sacha, J.O. & Branic, N. The black box within a black box: Solitary confinement practices in a subset of U.S. immigrant detention facilities. J Pop Research 35, 435–465 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12546-018-9209-8

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Keywords

  • Solitary confinement
  • Immigration detention
  • United States
  • Immigration