by Sarah Gardiner and Cynthia Galaz

Spoiled food. Medical neglect leading to death. Retaliatory use of solitary confinement. Sexual assault. These are just some of the abuses faced by the approximately 50,000 immigrants detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jails and prisons throughout the country. However, a new report by Freedom for Immigrants explains how the abuse in immigration detention is deliberate and amounts to psychological torture.

Advocates and government watchdog groups have spent years meticulously documenting and exposing these abuses and their impact on individuals and communities. At the same time, a critical and often-overlooked aspect of immigration detention is its impact on mental health.

Immigration detention did not originate with the current government. However, under the Trump administration more immigrants are detained for increasingly longer periods of time. In comparison to the Obama administration, ICE officials and immigration judges were much more likely to exercise their discretion to release individuals on parole or bond.

A recent wave of detention expansion concentrated in Mississippi and Louisiana has stranded detained immigrants in rural facilities with track records of abuse. These facilities operate under the purview of ICE Field Offices with near-zero approval ratings for parole for asylum seekers and within court districts with equally low asylum approval rates. A 2018 class action lawsuit identified five additional ICE field offices with near-zero approval rates for release on parole. Immigration attorneys also report a dramatic rise in bond rates under the Trump administration. With an immigration court backlog of one million cases, detained immigrants denied release or unable to post exorbitant bond amounts face indefinite detention in terrible conditions.

The isolation, systemic denial of possibility of release, and constant fear of deportation creates - by design - an atmosphere of uncertainty and hopelessness that understandably results in widespread anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It should not be a surprise that the result is a mental health crisis.

On October 6, Roylan Hernández Díaz, a Cuban asylum seeker, died of apparent suicide in a privately-operated ICE  jail in rural Louisiana. Prior to his death, Hernandez Diaz had been denied parole on humanitarian grounds three times.

Advocates report fears of mass suicide at the Otero Processing Center in New Mexico. A group of Cuban asylum seekers detained at Otero published a letter on October 22 denouncing prolonged detention and “the constant threat by the officials of the center to punish us … with the goal of repressing us and psychologically torturing us with the objective of making us have fear and making us deport ourselves…”  The letter stated that some asylum seekers had engaged in hunger strikes and others had tried to commit suicide.  All of the men are seeking political asylum and have been detained for six months or more.

People with pre-existing mental health illnesses are especially vulnerable in ICE jails and prisons. Detained individuals and advocates have exposed the subpar mental health services available to people in ICE detention. ICE has a recorded history of holding people with mental illnesses in solitary confinement, even when medical professionals have expressed concerns over the practice. In some cases, this combination of medical neglect and abuse has led to suicide.

Through interviews with 40 people impacted by immigration detention, “Immigration Detention is Psychological Torture: Strategies for Surviving Our Fight for Freedom,” outlines the severe psychological impact of detention. While the report cites specific examples of abuse, the focus is the mental impact caused by the mere existence of detention. Virtually all of those interviewed emphasized the mental strain caused by isolation and uncertainty over when or how their detention would end. One survey participant, who had previously served a criminal sentence, stated,  “I would rather serve another life sentence than go back to immigration detention. At least when I was in prison, I knew what to expect.”

Various high-ranking Trump officials, including former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have described immigration detention as a “tough deterrent.”  Prior administrations, beginning with the response of the Reagan presidency to an influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees in the 1980s, have also framed detention as a deterrent. Under a framework of deterrence, the government is incentivized to make detention as painful and hopeless as possible. The point is to isolate and break the spirit of those detained.

In the short term, advocates will continue to focus on responding to immediate humanitarian crisis in ICE detention and increasing support for impacted communities. We will also continue to call for ICE to comply with its own policies and federal directives and ensure that those detained have legitimate options for release.

In the long term we must move beyond calls for improvements in conditions or ICE’s compliance with existing laws. Our system of mass immigration detention functions as torture. It must be abolished.