WASHINGTON -- On any given day, about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities that make up the sprawling patchwork of holding centers nationwide overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, according to new federal data. Nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more, the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm, with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days.
While the records do not indicate why immigrants were put into solitary confinement, an adviser who helped the immigration agency review the numbers estimated that two-thirds of the cases involved disciplinary infractions such as breaking rules, talking back to guards or getting into fights. Immigrants were also regularly isolated because they were viewed as a threat to other detainees or personnel or for protective purposes when the immigrant was gay or mentally ill.
The United States has come under sharp criticism at home and abroad for relying on solitary confinement in its prisons more than any other democratic nation in the world. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement places only about 1 percent of its jailed immigrants in solitary confinement, this practice is nonetheless startling because those detainees are being held on civil, not criminal, charges. As such, they are not supposed to be punished; they are simply confined to ensure that they appear for administrative hearings.
After federal immigration authorities caught up with him, Rashed BinRashed, an illegal arrival from Yemen, was sent to a detention center in Juneau, Wis., in 2005, where he was put into solitary confinement for 30 days because, he says, he asked not to go to the cafeteria because he was fasting for Ramadan.
Federal officials confined Delfino Quiroz, a gay immigrant from Mexico, in solitary for four months in 2010, saying that it was for his own protection, he recalls. He sank into a deep depression as he overheard three inmates attempt suicide.
"Please God," he remembers praying, "don't let me be the same."
As lawmakers in Washington consider an overhaul of the immigration system, Congress faces thorny questions not just about what status to grant immigrants already in the country, but also about how best to increase enforcement efforts and what rights to give illegal immigrants during their detention.
The new federal data highlights how punitive and costly immigration policy has become, since solitary confinement is one of the most expensive forms of detention.
"ICE is clearly using excessive force, since these are civil detentions," said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who studies solitary confinement at the Wright Institute, a graduate school in psychology based in Berkeley, Calif. "That makes this a human rights abuse."
Ernestine Fobbs, an agency spokeswoman, said that aside from immigrants who are separated from the general population for disciplinary reasons, detainees are isolated only "as a final resort, when other options are not available to address the specifics of the situation."
"ICE takes the mental health care of individuals in the agency's custody very seriously," she added. The agency declined to talk about particular cases, citing privacy concerns.
Another agency official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, emphasized that some detainees who are put into "segregation units" have criminal records, gang affiliations or histories of violence.
"It's an extreme situation," the official said. "We want to make sure not to overuse it."
While the conditions of confinement vary, detainees in solitary are routinely kept alone for 22 to 23 hours per day, sometimes in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells, according to interviews with current and former detainees and a review of case records involving more than three dozen immigrants since 2010.
Access to phones and lawyers is far more restricted in solitary; occasionally such communications were permitted only in the middle of the night when it was unlikely that anyone would be available. Immigrants are typically given an hour or so of recreation each day, detainees said. In some facilities, that is limited to pacing in what detainees call "the cage," a sparse indoor enclosure with concrete floors and fencing on all sides, similar to an indoor dog kennel.
The data, which federal officials began reviewing a year ago at the request of immigration lawyers, offers the first public snapshot of the number of immigrants held in solitary confinement, how long they were there and how many had mental health problems -- about 10 percent. The 50 facilities that were reviewed by the agency over a five-month period hold about 85 percent of the agency's average daily population of 34,000 detainees.
The tallies provided by the immigration agency are probably low because many of the detention centers failed to report segregation statistics during some weeks of the review, and some did not include mental health cases in their tallies.
The immigration official who requested anonymity said the agency closely monitors conditions to ensure that isolation practices adhere to agency guidelines, including regular reviews of the solitary cases and visits by medical professionals.
As the Obama administration has stepped up enforcement, the immigration detention population has increased; it is up by nearly 85 percent since 2005. When illegal immigrants are detained, they are typically not given sentences with end dates; they are held, sometimes for months, until they voluntarily sign deportation papers or immigration authorities determine whether they can stay or will be deported.
Although the immigration agency's new guidelines limit the use of solitary to 30 days for each disciplinary infraction, there are exceptions, and such confinement can be indefinite, according to data obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit journalism organization based at American University.
Solitary confinement is widely viewed as the most dangerous way to detain people, and roughly half of prison suicides occur when people are segregated in this way. Deprived of meaningful human contact, otherwise healthy prisoners often become deeply troubled. Paranoia, depression, memory loss and self-mutilation are not uncommon. No data is available on how many of the 18 suicides out of 133 deaths of detained immigrants since 2003 occurred in solitary units.
Allen Keller, the director of the New York University Center for Health and Human Rights, said that when he interviewed about 70 immigrant detainees a decade or so ago, roughly a quarter said they had been put into solitary confinement at some point and about 40 percent said they had been threatened with it.
Trauma experts say the psychological impact of solitary may be more acute for immigrant detainees because many are victims of human trafficking, domestic violence or sexual assault or have survived persecution and torture in their home countries.