Whistleblower Exposes Abuse of Solitary Confinement Targeting Mentally Disabled Immigrants at ICE Detention Centers

Whistleblower Exposes Abuse of Solitary Confinement Targeting Mentally Disabled Immigrants at ICE Detention Centers

ICE’s detention centers are known for routinely violating the rights of suspected illegal immigrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s abusive use of solitary confinement has recently been exposed by Ellen Gallagher, a whistleblower who said she was “deeply disturbed” by what she observed and felt “helpless” when she tried to get a reaction from authorities.

Gallagher was once a policy adviser in the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”). During her work, the frustrated whistleblower, learned that one detained immigrant was sent to solitary confinement for two weeks after threatening suicide, and a mentally ill inmate was sentenced to 11 days for engaging in a consensual kiss with another detainee.

Though Gallagher tried to blow the whistle internally for years, her concerns fell on deaf ears, and she eventually resorted to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”), famous for exposing the Panama Papers among other scandals implicating unethical politicians and corporations.

The ICIJ expose based on Gallagher’s observations paints a grim picture of the treatment of immigrants at ICE detention centers. “Solitary confinement was being used as the first resort, not the last resort,” she said. “And sometimes it was the only approach.” Gallagher believes ICE’s use of isolation cells “rises to the point of torture.” 

“Until there are enough people that [go public], then this same set of circumstances will not stop, and I think it’ll actually get worse,” the whistleblower told ICIJ reporters. The investigative journalists joined forces with NBC, advocacy groups in various Latin American countries, NBC News, The Intercept, and Univision to create a comprehensive report entitled “Solitary Voices.”

After reviewing over 8,400 incident reports and numerous detainee interviews, the ICIJ concluded that ICE routinely uses solitary confinement to isolate the most vulnerable rather than the most violent or dangerous detainees. 

While ICE responded to the report by saying they are working to reduce the unnecessary use of solitary confinement, according to Gallagher, they had abundant opportunities to do so over the last few years, but completely ignored the officials raising concerns.

Since 2013, ICE’s solitary confinement reports must be analyzed by a council that includes one representative from Gallagher’s former office. It was an intern who first pointed to anomalies in the segregation reports. Gallagher then personally reviewed them and was especially concerned about the routine placement of mentally ill detainees in solitary. “I could not believe that so many people who were listed as suffering from serious mental illness, for example, were being assigned extended periods in solitary confinement,” Gallagher commented. “It raises a profound question about the overall system.”  

After raising concerns to her superiors, Gallagher went to the DHS Office of the Inspector General, individual members of Congress, and congressional committees. According to the ICIJ report, Gallagher’s concerns met with nothing but “bureaucratic indirection and indifference.” The whistleblower recalls that she was left “with feelings of helplessness and deep sadness.”

When the Office of the Inspector General finally released two reports about ICE’s alleged violations, Gallagher believed it wasn’t taking the problem seriously enough. The second report stated that ICE “may have misused segregation,” an utter understatement when one considers the evidence at hand, the ICIJ believes.

The Office of the Inspector General’s reports managed to get Gallagher’s case closed, and it was not until the Consortium decided to publish its own analysis that ICE was forced to refer to the problem in the public eye. 

Children are not receiving better treatment than mentally ill detainees at ICE centers. Recently, a number of toddlers with untreated, life-threatening conditions were rescued from ICE facilities in McAllen, Texas. “The guards continue to dehumanize these people and treat them worse than we would treat animals,” a spokesperson for the victims commented at the time.

The dangerous use of solitary confinement as a substitute for psychiatric care seems to be the norm at ICE detention centers. Unfortunately, this is also the case in prisons and jails across the U.S. In many cases, the improper use of isolation cells has led to the worsening of mental health symptoms, hallucinations, paranoia, and suicide.

By mid-2018, the ICE and Homeland Security had paid immigrants and their families over  $51 million to resolve allegations of wrongful death or injury at ICE detention centers and illegal deportation. 

Inmates have the right not to be abused. If you or a loved one has suffered mistreatment in jail or prison, you have legal options and may be entitled to compensation. CALL US at 866.836.4684 or Connect Online to learn how we can help you file a federal civil rights lawsuit.


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