In theory, custody under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is civil detention, and not a criminal one or a form of punishment. Yet, in practice, US immigration detention centers are known for violating migrants’ human rights, as well as for criminalizing and punishing them. Recently, a nurse denounced a detention center in Georgia for its forced hysterectomies on migrant women. One detainee claimed: “The medical unit is not helpful at all, even if you are dying [...] For everything, including serious illnesses, they just hand out Ibuprofen.” Another one would state: “This place is not equipped for humans”.
Detention centers are not equipped to confront the pandemic, and detainees often do not receive medical services, even if they are sick. Between 2004 and 2019, there have been at least 193 deaths in detention. Some died of curable illnesses. Despite these dangers, the US government has refused to release detainees, even if they are at high-risk of contracting the virus. Alarmingly, solitary confinement, a form of punishment, has been used on detainees who have tested positive for coronavirus. Historically, ICE has inappropriately used solitary confinement against detainees, where they are confined into a windowless room for 22-24 hours a day, with nearly no human contact. In 2019, various media outlets detailed ICE’s inhumane solitary confinement practices after obtaining thousands of documents from the government. Of 8,488 cases of solitary confinement between 2012 and 2017, over half had spent more than 15 days in isolation, at least 187 for more than six months and 32 for at least a year. More than half of those placed in solitary confinement were from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. While solitary confinement is a punitive measure, 373 of them were placed there because they were suicidal, a third had a mental illness, and others such as “hunger strikers, LGBT detainees and people with disabilities have [also] been put in isolation” as a form of protective custody. Other detainees suffered isolation for no apparent reason, such as “more than 60 disabled detainees” who were placed in solitary confinement “solely because they required a wheelchair or some other aid”. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement should be banned since “it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Despite the negative consequences of solitary confinement, ICE has used it to cruelly treat covid-19 patients. At a detention center in Arizona, 45 men were placed in solitary confinement in June after they tested positive for the virus. In one case, Óscar Manuel Pérez Aguirre, a 57-year-old in Colorado who suffers from hypertension, was hospitalized for coronavirus symptoms. Upon his return to the facility, he was placed for two weeks in solitary confinement in a cell that was “filthy and freezing”. During that time, Pérez Aguirre was not treated by any medical personnel. Furthermore, after his release from isolation, he tested positive for the virus, was placed in another cell with another detainee and continued to suffer from shortness of breath. In another case, 74-year-old Choung Woong Ahn committed suicide while in quarantine in solitary confinement at a facility in California.
Detention centers are spaces of gross violence, where migrant rights to life and health are being denied. They are sites of death and torture and must be closed. All migrants must be released. The US is responsible for Baten-Oxlaj’s death and for the suffering of those incarcerated in detention centers.
In the next column I will provide some conclusions to the series.
* Read it in Spanish here.
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