2019 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Solitary Voices

About the Project

In the fall of 2018, a reporter for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists received a response to a Freedom of Information Act request made nearly two years earlier. It was a disc that contained 8,488 incident reports, including narrative details, describing placements of immigrants in solitary confinement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

ICIJ had already heard anecdotal accounts from immigrant detainees who had suffered in U.S. solitary confinement cells, punished for minor infractions and sometimes even their identity. The records proved the key to unlocking a much larger story: Solitary Voices, a collaboration by ICIJ, NBC News Investigative Unit, The Intercept, Univision, and media partners in Mexico, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Our original data analysis, buttressed by months of on-the-ground reporting, showed that ICE has locked thousands of mentally ill, LGBTQ and disabled detainees in isolation for weeks and months at a time.

The damage that isolation cells do is well documented. Confinement for 22 hours a day or more without meaningful social contact can spark and worsen anxiety, panic attacks, rage and other emotional or mental distress.

Former detainees we interviewed spoke of suffering flashbacks, depression, problems with memory, difficulty socializing, and insomnia long after they were released from ICE solitary cells. For some, solitary confinement was so destabilizing that they tried to kill themselves — only to be placed back in isolation.

Even short stays in isolation can cause lasting harm. The United Nations has said solitary confinement stays longer than 15 days should be banned, and ICE itself says solitary confinement should be used only as a last resort.

Yet more than half of the isolation reports described stays that lasted longer than 15 days. ICIJ identified 187 cases in which a detainee was held for more than six months.

In order to facilitate the sharing of reporting and tips, the reporters on this story communicated on iHub, a secure virtual bulletin board, and stayed in frequent touch by phone and chat. ICIJ partners powered major parts of the investigation, revealing new abuses and leading the team to key sources.

At least 13 detainees who later died in ICE detention spent time in solitary, NBC found. The agency acknowledged missteps for at least eight of them. Seven of those committed suicide while in solitary.

Another example: The Intercept first made contact with Ellen Gallagher, a supervisor within DHS, who had been attempting to blow the whistle internally on what she saw as grave human rights violations in ICE’s solitary confinement practices, and who spoke publicly as part of this investigation for the first time. ICE’s actions, she said, were tantamount to torture.

It took all of our efforts to track down and interview people who had spent time in solitary confinement in an ICE facility. We are very pleased that their stories, their Solitary Voices, are finally being heard.