On Tuesday, United States Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote a strongly-worded letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton urging him never to use solitary confinement simply because a detainee is gay or lesbian. Immigration Equality commends Senator Schumer for recognizing that solitary confinement is a grossly inhumane and improper means of housing vulnerable gay and lesbian immigration detainees. We urge both Senator Schumer and Director Morton to ensure that such recognition extends equally to transgender detainees, who are among those most commonly subjected to torturous forms of solitary confinement out of misguided concerns for their protection.
In his letter, Senator Schumer accurately remarks, “[p]articularly troubling is the reliance on solitary confinement as a means of cordoning off certain inmates, such as gays and lesbians, who may be at risk in the general detainee population. This would seem to amount to inflicting punishment in the name of offering protection.” Under the pretext of safety concerns, ICE far too often places LGBT detainees in forms of solitary confinement that are indistinguishable from harsh disciplinary practices for violent and dangerous felons. One of Immigration Equality’s clients, a transgender woman named Marta (not her real name), was housed alone in a ten square foot cell at a Louisiana prison for 23 hours a day without access to phones, recreation, or human contact. After she described to detention staff the distress her prolonged isolation caused her, Marta was put on suicide watch with security checks at fifteen minute intervals that further stripped her of her dignity. Although Immigration Equality was able to secure Marta’s release from detention, many other LGBT detainees continue to languish for months on end as she did, without any meaningful way to challenge their solitary confinement.
Immigration Equality continues to recommend that ICE cease its practice of detaining LGBT immigrants, who are at increased risk of harassment, violence, and sexual assault in confinement settings. If ICE is to detain LGBT immigrants, we agree with Senator Schumer’s stance that “[a]bove all, solitary confinement at ICE detention facilities must always be a last resort. It should never be imposed on at-risk non-citizens such as gay and lesbian detainees; ICE should find better methods to protect them. For LGBT detainees, a variety of far more humane alternative-to-detention programs can provide superior methods of ensuring that they appear for their court hearings. These alternatives, which may include electronic ankle bracelets, telephonic check-ins, and community-sponsored supervision go much further to protect LGBT detainees than do agonizing forms of solitary confinement. These alternatives also more closely align with immigration detention’s nature as a form of civil, rather than criminal detention.
Immigration Equality urges Senator Schumer and Director Morton to remember that solitary confinement is inappropriate for transgender detainees, just as it is for gay and lesbian detainees. Because detention facilities traditionally classify individuals according to their sex assigned at birth, many facilities customarily attempt to mitigate transgender detainees’ risk of victimization by immediately placing them in solitary confinement. Given the damaging physical and mental health consequences of prolonged solitary confinement for LGBT individuals, Immigration Equality supports Senator Schumer’s position that ICE should take action to limit solitary confinement “to no more than 14 days except in the most extreme circumstances,” and that legislative reform must include protections against solitary confinement for vulnerable LGBT detainees.