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May 21, 2019 – Dulce Rivera lived for the one hour a day she was allowed outside, to pace alone on a patch of concrete encased by metal fencing.
They called it “the yard,” but it was really a metal cage. Still, it was far better than the misery she endured the other 23 hours a day, locked alone in a cell with no one to talk to, and nothing to distract her from her increasingly dark thoughts.
Rivera, a 36-year-old transgender woman from Honduras and a longtime United States resident, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017. She was placed in the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, and moved into solitary confinement in May of 2018 for harassing other detainees, according to facility records.
The cell had bare walls, adorned only with a few crude metal necessities: a table, sink and toilet.
“You never know what day it is, what time it is,” Rivera said. “Sometimes you never see the sun.”
On June 20, nearly four weeks after she was placed in isolation, guards told her that she wouldn’t be allowed to go to the yard. Two days later, she fashioned a noose from a torn blanket and hanged herself from a ceiling vent.
A passing guard cut her down before she suffocated, but her ordeal wasn’t over. After a trip to the hospital, immigration officials led Rivera back to a different solitary confinement cell — this one with huge block letters across the door reading “SUICIDE SAFE.”
Rivera would spend most of the next year in isolation, in the same conditions that she blames for her mental breakdown.
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has said that solitary confinement should be banned except in “very exceptional circumstances” and that isolation for more than 15 days constitutes “inhuman and degrading treatment.” The mentally ill should never be put in isolation, the rapporteur said.
ICE’s own directives say that isolating its detainees — who under federal law, aren’t considered prisoners and aren’t held for punitive reasons — is “a serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives.”
An investigation called Solitary Voices by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has found that rather than as a last resort, ICE uses isolation as a go-to tool to manage and punish even the most vulnerable detainees for weeks and months at a time.
ICIJ’s reporting, which included a groundbreaking review of more than 8,400 reports describing placements of ICE detainees in solitary confinement, found that the immigration agency has used isolation cells to punish immigrants for offenses as minor as consensual kissing and to segregate hunger strikers, LGBTQ detainees and people with disabilities.
In nearly a third of the cases, detainees were described as having a mental illness, a population especially vulnerable to breakdown if locked up alone in a small cell. Records reviewed by ICIJ describe detainees in isolation mutilating their genitals, gouging their eyes, cutting their wrists and smearing their cells with feces.
The review found that while held in isolation cells, immigrants had suffered hallucinations, fits of anger and suicidal impulses. Former detainees told ICIJ they experienced sleeplessness, flashbacks, depression and memory loss long after release.
“People were being brutalized,” said Ellen Gallagher, a supervisor within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who has tried for years to sound the alarm within the federal government about abusive use of solitary confinement by ICE, a DHS agency.
She has never been so deeply disturbed by a professional matter, she said. “I lost sleep. I cried,” she said.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Gallagher said she believes ICE’s use of solitary confinement “rises to the point of torture.”