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Harvard Law School Program Report Finds ICE’s Use of Solitary Confinement Meets Criteria for Torture

Researchers from Harvard Law School found that solitary confinement practices by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement met the United Nation's criteria for torture.
Researchers from Harvard Law School found that solitary confinement practices by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement met the United Nation's criteria for torture. By Kathryn S. Kuhar
By S. Mac Healey and Saketh Sundar, Crimson Staff Writers

Researchers from Harvard Law School issued a report on Tuesday that found that solitary confinement practices by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement met the United Nation’s criteria for “torture.”

The report, released by HLS Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Program, revealed that ICE used solitary confinement at least 14,264 times from 2018 to 2023.

In a Tuesday press release from HLS, the researchers wrote that solitary placements lasted 27 days on average, exceeding “the 15-day period that constitutes torture as defined by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.” According to the report, 682 solitary confinement placements lasted at least 90 days while 42 lasted over one year.

In addition, researchers found an “ongoing increase in the use and duration of solitary confinement in ICE detention” since the middle of 2021, according to the press release.

The researchers emphasized the cruelty of ICE’s detention practices and concluded in the report that “ICE uses solitary confinement arbitrarily and as punishment.”

The clinic collaborated with researchers from Harvard Medical School and Physicians for Human Rights to interview 26 detainees and obtain first-hand perspectives.

“Being in solitary, that is like a whole other level of playing with your mind,” a 50-year-old man who was held in solitary confinement said to the researchers. “To bother you, to hurt you, to offend you, to make you feel like less than nothing. Even your biology changes, how you view the world changes.”

“Your mind and your body break into little pieces,” he added.

Sabrineh Ardalan, the director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, said interviewee testimony was consistent with the report’s findings.

“The descriptions that those individuals provided very much match the data that we were able to obtain, and explain how just horrific the treatment is that folks are experiencing,” Ardalan said.

Arevik Avedian, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and one of the report’s co-authors, said ICE’s use of solitary confinement disproportionately harms vulnerable populations, such as LGBTQ+ detainees and people with disabilities.

“People with vulnerabilities such as people with serious mental illnesses or transgender populations have been put in solitary confinement much longer than others,” Avedian said.

The report is the result of a six-year investigation, which included a lawsuit against the federal agency after they refused to respond to the clinic’s Freedom of Information Act requests.

The researchers found that ICE’s self-reported solitary confinement data was insufficient, often “underestimating the number of placements and the length,” according to Avedian.

“88 percent of people with serious mental illnesses were completely missing from the data that ICE provides,” she added.

The researchers emphasized the novelty of the findings and the exclusivity of the data.

“It is one of the most expansive investigations into the use of solitary confinement in U.S. immigration detention to date,” the press release reads.

In the press release, Tessa Wilson, a report co-author and senior program officer at Physicians for Human Rights, pointed to U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to end solitary confinement.

“Our report makes it clear that there has been no meaningful progress or reform over the past decade,” Wilson said in the press release. “The White House and Congress must act now to safeguard the health and rights of those in its custody by ending this barbaric practice for good.”

“Biden has a year left at least. It would be a wonderful legacy for the administration to have from this term,” Avedian added.

Philip L. Torrey, director of the Crimmigration Clinic at HLS and co-author of the report, said their message is clear.

“​​We're calling for ICE to end the use of solitary confinement,” he said. “That’s our top line request.”

—Staff writer S. Mac Healey can be reached at Follow him on X @MacHealey.

—Staff writer Saketh Sundar can be reached at Follow him on X @saketh_sundar.

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