There's a Mental Health Crisis in ICE Detention

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Nooses made from bedsheets, suicidal detainees being pepper sprayed, and mentally ill migrants placed in solitary confinement: These are just some of the horrible aspects of the dire state of mental health care in ICE detention facilities, according to a Politico report published yesterday.

The story details “a largely unseen mental health crisis,” with the agency “ill-equipped to screen and treat a detainee population that’s grown more than 50 percent since 2016, to nearly 53,000.” According to Politico, an inspector general report published in September 2018 found that “[d]etainees had made nooses from bedsheets in 15 of 20 cells in the facility they visited,” and suicide attempts were dealt with callously:

One detainee told the agency interviewers, “I’ve seen a few attempted suicides using the braided sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them ‘suicide failures’ once they are back from medical.”


And in March, Politico reported, the group Disability Rights California reported “a case where guards pepper sprayed a detainee attempting suicide.”

A 2016 agency oversight report found that just nine percent of ICE facilities had “any kind of in-person mental health services from the agency’s medical staff,” according to Politico, which also reported that one former ICE official put the number of ICE detainees with mental illnesses between 3,000 and 6,000, though “immigration advocates say the number is far higher — possibly 20 or 30 percent of the total detainee population.”

Worst of all, some of the supposed treatment ends up extending the sufferers’ detention:

ICE operates some acute mental health inpatient facilities, including a facility in Columbia, S.C., for detainees who can’t go through immigration proceedings. But once they are stabilized, migrants end up back in a detention center.

Advocates say that the process ends up prolonging overall detention stays and argue that while the Miami pilot program could be an improvement, migrants with mental health conditions shouldn’t be locked up at all.


Mental health is sidelined at every level in the United States healthcare system—just ask anyone who’s tried to find a psychiatrist that’s in their health insurance network and is actually taking new patients. But it’s even worse in detention facilities, including regular old federal prisons. These are places designed to punish, so it’s no wonder that ICE agents’ “response to people who have a mental health crisis is to punish them,” as an attorney with Disability Rights California told Politico.

The fundamental cruelty of this system is that these people are detained not because they are dangerous or a threat to society—which is surely true about many regular prisoners, too—but simply because they crossed the border. And though the detention is supposed to be temporary, many migrants languish in these facilities for months, and the average length of detention has grown. One has to wonder how many people who enter ICE facilities in a good state of mental health would manage to leave in the same state.

Splinter politics writer.

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