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After months of social distancing, many of us are feeling its effects. Experts have delineated the mental and physical health impacts of isolation caused by the pandemic, and those who have experienced home quarantine have been particularly vulnerable to loneliness and depression.

Imagine though, if quarantine meant you were confined to a single bare room and deprived of the things that could keep you happy and sane — video chats with loved ones, digital entertainment, a sense of purpose through work, and of course, occasional human contact.


Yet that has been the experience of the pandemic for many in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention, where isolation in a single cell is being used as a substitute for medical quarantine. Attorneys and other advocates have begun reporting ICE’s inappropriate use of solitary confinement to media outlets and the court system.

Some in ICE custody have recounted their experiences in sworn court documents: Oscar Perez Aguirre, who is being detained in Aurora, Colo., became ill with Covid-19 and needed to be hospitalized. Upon his return to the detention center, he was placed into “the Hole.” Despite being too sick to stand, he remained in segregation for more than two weeks in a cell he described as “filthy and freezing.” Ruben Mencias Soto, a detained person in Adelanto, Calif., was placed in a bare cinderblock room after his hospitalization. He was locked in by himself for 23 hours a day.

ICE has a history of inappropriately using solitary confinement cells for the “medical segregation” of individuals sick with cancer, tuberculosis, mumps, HIV, and mental illness, a practice one of us (E.G.) exposed while working for the Department of Homeland Security. We have collectively reviewed hundreds of ICE documents, called segregation reports, detailing instances where individuals were placed in solitary confinement. As medical professionals, two of us (S.F. and J.W.B.) have performed hundreds of forensic psychiatric evaluations of asylum seekers, some of whom had been held in solitary confinement for months, and have seen the devastating mental and physical repercussions.


Now that Covid-19 has spread through detention centers across the country, ICE has made it clear that it views solitary confinement as an appropriate public health response to the pandemic.

A punishment by design, solitary confinement is so deleterious to mental health that in 2011, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture condemned its use apart from exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible. ICE is making no such limitations.

The mental health effects of living in such an environment are well-documented. Research going back to the 1970s has shown that just one week of isolation results in significant changes to baseline brain activity and recent animal experiments have demonstrated the impact of social isolation on parts of the brain that help regulate mood.

Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has spent his career studying solitary confinement, has reported that it can cause hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Forced isolation for as little as five days is also correlated with increased risk of PTSD and suicide. Choung Woong Ahn, a detained person at the Mesa Verde ICE facility in California, was placed in Covid-19 medical isolation on May 15 and died by suicide two days later.

As we write this, 862 people in ICE detention centers have tested positive for Covid-19. As medical professionals have explained, solitary confinement and unit lockdowns are insufficient for preventing disease transmission, and epidemiologists have predicted that at least 72% of the more than 21,000 individuals in immigration detention will become infected. There are also legitimate concerns that sick people put in solitary confinement will receive inadequate medical care.

ICE’s use of solitary confinement and lockdowns as a substitute for quarantine amid soaring infection rates simply highlights the sheer inability of detention centers to implement CDC-recommended public health measures and keep those under its custody safe.

Health and legal professionals, including the Department of Homeland Security’s own medical experts and the former head of ICE, have already called for the large-scale release of those in detention. The public health risks are reason enough, but the cruelty of using solitary confinement in the name of protecting the well-being of immigrants — including many asylum seekers who were victims of torture before entering the U.S. — is another reason it cannot be ignored.

The Department of Homeland Security has long been aware of ICE’s inappropriate use of segregation, and legislation has been proposed to curb the practice. Congress, so far, has failed to act. But this crisis presents an opportunity for redemption. The pandemic may have forced us to pull away from each other, but we maintain hope it can also inspire us to recognize, and act upon, our shared humanity.

Samara Fox is a resident psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who previously worked as an immigration attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. Ellen Gallagher is an attorney and former policy adviser at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. J. Wesley Boyd is a staff psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Mass., a co-director of its Human Rights/Asylum Clinic, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a faculty member in the HMS Center for Bioethics.

    • Absolutely right, Carlos.

      But they calculate that it is worth taking a chance.
      They can try playing soft-headed thinking like that displayed by the comments written by the so-called (ahem) “Mary Jones.”

      But it is not only airheads who think we should reward the criminals who prey on us.

      It is the huge rat’s nest of their compatriot criminals already here who are agitating that they should have the right to vote, and that we should lose the right to have national borders.

      And they are abetted by the dying spasms of those poisonous serpents — Communism and the fascist neo-lefties — which persistently agitate for whatever will most disrupt and damage America.

  • How much should the detention center spend on entertaining these criminals?

    After all, no one wants to see them deprived of ” … video chats with loved ones, digital entertainment, a sense of purpose through work, and of course, occasional human contact.”

    But still, if equipping a jail cell up to the level of a private home — owned by Americans who live and work legally, who paid for their own educations, and did many other things to deserve their luxuries — if providing all that to short-term prisoners is not especially affordable by the victims (namely, American taxpayers), maybe the criminals should remember one thing …

    The absolutely best way ever to avoid the hardships of prison is to NOT COMMIT CRIMES.

    • People held in ICE detention have not been found guilty of any crime other than being in the US illegally. If you commit a criminal infraction you are held in jail or prison. If you believe that holding people in solitary for committing the crime of being in a country illegally, then you clearly do not understand the dilemmas face by people who flee for their lives and then hide in safer places to save themselves and/or their loved ones. There is no virtue-signaling involved in calling that practice out as being inhumane and barbaric.

    • @Mary Jones

      What do you mean “People held in ICE detention have not been found guilty of any crime other than being in the US illegally” ?
      That IS a crime.
      They are being detained until they can be deported.

      There are BILLIONS of people who want to improve their financial status by ripping off others.
      They can’t all live here.

      People who are that greedy to abandon their own countries and come to the US for financial reasons can GET IN LINE.
      Undocumented aliens are dangerous to Americans and unjust to legal immigrants on the wait lists.

      Naturally they are doing this criminal act only for the chance of bettering their own lives.
      That’s the reason for ALL economic crime.
      But that does not add up to “so they should have permission to commit these crimes.”
      It doesn’t even add up to “So let’s spend taxpayer money on entertaining them.”

      Of course your attitude is “virtue signaling.”
      You haven’t even thought through the implications of your weepy ideas.

  • If one really studies the concept of solitary confinement one finds oh my! Charles Dickens fought against its use. He experienced workhouse life and probably saw first hand it’s use and subsequent affects on the human beings in which it was used.
    Many behavioral health units use forced isolation as part and parcel of so called treatment.
    ICE and it’s use of this method is only another nauseating reflection on our inability as human beings to work toward help rather than harm.
    How do humans who put other humans in isolation ever sleep at night? And do they use chemical aids to get to sleep?

    • Wow, Mary ~

      You sure are kindly disposed to criminals who are victimizing you.

      I hope your virtue-signaling isn’t just because of a lack of insight into how civilization works.
      For example, I trust you would be highly eager to “help” someone who victimized you directly.

      I daresay you know lots of mothers of murdered children who want the murderers to be “helped” rather than punished for their crimes.

      And how do you feel about car thieves? You just want to “help” the weasel who stole your car … right?

    • Well, Mary ~

      It’s okay with me if these prisoners opt to be housed in groups with unknown numbers of people spreading the virus to everyone else.

      Or maybe you have a solution?
      What should we do except housing them in infectious groups or housing them alone?
      I bet your solution is “Let them run free in the US, infecting Americans.” AmIrite?

      Oh, and one more thing.
      When you wrote “ICE and it’s use of this method … “, you misspelled “its.”
      That’s a THREE-LETTER word, Mary, like “dog” or “cat.”
      Misspelling it does not add to your credibility.

    • I forgot that you misspelled “its” twice.

      Here is the first time:
      “[Dickens] experienced workhouse life and probably saw first hand it’s use … ”

      Oddly enough, you also spelled it correctly once.
      You correctly wrote:
      “Charles Dickens fought against its use.”

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