Report raises concerns about solitary detention for gay, transgender immigrants

Medill News ServiceNovember 27, 2013 

— Many gay, lesbian and transgender immigrants held in U.S. detention centers, who may be vulnerable to abuse by guards and other detainees, are placed in solitary confinement to protect them, but the isolation can cause psychological problems, according to a new report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

“Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture,” said Sharita Gruberg, a policy analyst at the center, which released the report Monday addressing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrant abuses in U.S. immigrant detention facilities. “When (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) does this to prevent people from being sexually assaulted, it puts them at risk of other forms of trauma.”

Some LGBT immigrants also face physical, sexual and verbal abuse from detention facility guards while in solitary, which defeats the purpose of isolating vulnerable populations, said Gruberg, who wrote the report.

The report found about 200 reports of sexual, mental and physical abuse involving LGBT detainees by guards and other immigrants at all federal facilities from 2008 to 2013.

The reports were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Homeland Security. However, the requests only involved reported abuse incidents that mentioned immigrants’ sexual orientation.

From October 2009 to March 2013, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional investigative agency, also looked at about 200 allegations of sexual abuse of all immigrants in detention facilities. The GAO was not able to locate all abuse allegations and concluded that the Department of Homeland Security needs to do a better job of keeping records of sexual abuse allegations.

In more than half the cases, it could not be determined by the GAO whether the abuse had really occurred. Another 38 percent of allegations were deemed unfounded. Seven percent of the allegations were substantiated.

In 2011, the average daily population of U.S. immigration detention centers was about 33,000, which was an increase from the nearly 28,000 in 2007, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Nationwide, the agency houses detainees in more than 250 state and local facilities.

About 1 percent of detainees are held in solitary confinement, according to the agency.

When detainees are held in solitary confinement for more than 15 days they could face irreversible psychological problems, including hallucinations, panic attacks and paranoia, said Lynne Gaby, a psychiatrist in Washington who has worked with clients held in solitary confinement in their home countries.

“There is a loss of sense of self, feelings of despair and hopelessness,” Gaby said. “This is likely due to the loss of connection to others, which is how we maintain our sense of ourselves and reality.”

Placing vulnerable individuals, including the disabled, pregnant women and those who may be victimized because of their sexual orientation, in solitary confinement is a last resort, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If the agency finds an individual was inappropriately placed, the detainee will be placed in “less restrictive options,” according to the agency.

“Overall, ICE is committed to providing a safe and humane environment that is attentive to the unique needs of the individuals in our custody,” said the agency’s spokeswoman, Gillian Christensen. “Since 2009, ICE has been engaged in a long-term detention reform effort in order to prioritize the health and safety of detainees in our custody while increasing federal oversight and improving the conditions of confinement within the detention system.”

Franco Ordonez of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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