A new study reveals that U.S. law enforcement isn’t only disproportionately harsh when dealing with black Americans, but that our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is similarly biased in their treatment of African and Caribbean immigrants.
According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, researchers found that ICE detainees from predominantly black countries had been placed in solitary confinement six times as often as detainees from other countries.
Detainees from these predominantly black countries made up just 4% of detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody from 2012 to 2017 — but 24% of all solitary confinement stays, the forthcoming report from researchers at the University of California concludes.
The disparity is due in part to ICE personnel using solitary confinement as a tool to discipline detainees from Africa and the Caribbean much more often than for people from other countries. The stark racial difference, the authors say, parallels the most painful inequities of America’s criminal justice system.
ICIJ shared incident reports with the study’s researchers that show that ICE routinely places detainees they consider troublesome in solitary confinement for weeks and months at a time. While some of those detainees, such as those with mental illnesses, are segregated from the rest of the population in order to protect themselves and others, the study found that ICE was 22 percent more likely to place African detainees in solitary confinement for disciplinary infractions.
Not only are detainees of African origin locked in solitary confinement more frequently than their non-African or Caribbean counterparts, but the study also found that they are placed there for longer periods of time. For example, detainees from the Middle East spent five days longer in solitary compared to ICE’s overall population.
Assistant professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University Nathan Craig, who isn’t involved in the study, told ICIJ that “[it] appears that dark-skinned individuals are more quickly and readily disciplined with long periods of solitary than their lighter-skinned counterparts.”
The study’s authors say that part of the reason for these racial disparities (aside from garden-variety racism) may involve language barriers between ICE guards who often only speak English and Spanish and detainees who speak neither language.
Craig agrees that language issues are part of the problem.
“While South Asians are chided and demeaned by staff for not speaking English, we have numerous accounts of staff discriminating against Anglophone or Francophone Africans who do not speak Spanish,” he said. “In some cases, guards will only speak to Africans in Spanish. Communication issues are often at the heart of disciplinary use of solitary confinement.”
Studies have shown the damaging impact solitary confinement has on mental health and that spending 22 hours or more a day isolated from any social interaction can cause lasting trauma and cause suicidal urges. Authors of the UC study note that while U.S. state prison systems are moving towards eliminating the use of solitary confinement, ICE has continued the practice nationwide.