Solitary Voices

Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)

Country/area: United States

Organisation: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Intercept, NBC News, Univision, WNYC, Grupo SIN, Plaza Pública, Mexicanos contra la corrupción

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 21/05/2019

Credit: Reporting & Data Teams

Project description:

Solitary Voices exposes how U.S. immigration authorities use solitary confinement as a go-to tool to manage and punish the most vulnerable detainees, with devastating consequences.

An ICIJ analysis of ICE records showed that the agency has locked thousands of mentally ill, LGBTQ and disabled detainees in isolation for weeks and months. More than half of the isolation reports described stays that lasted longer than 15 days. The United Nations has said solitary confinement stays longer than 15 days amount to torture and should be banned, and ICE itself says it should be used only as a last resort.

Impact reached:

The project resonated in Washington, D.C., where leading lawmakers seized upon our findings to press ICE to explain the abusive practices outlined in the reporting, and to introduce legislation in the U.S. Senate to stop them. 

Citing ICIJ reporting in a letter to the head of ICE, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) condemned the use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees as “cruel and unnecessary,” and asserted that ICE is likely violating its own detention directives. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) followed up with another letter to the agency, demanding answers on “recent allegations of the misuse of solitary confinement.”

In November, Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) cited Solitary Voices in legislation that takes aim at a range of practices identified in our investigation. In releasing the bill, the senators called ICE’s use of isolation “rampant and unnecessary.” The bill is highly detailed and would outlaw locking detainees in solitary confinement in most instances as a punishment. 

We expect additional government action in the months to come.    

Solitary Voices was also consequential in legal proceedings seeking to reform ICE’s use of isolation cells. Our reporting is cited extensively in a major lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of detainees. The lawsuit claims the agency’s misuse and overuse of solitary confinement is unconstitutional under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We’ve also seen this project impact the lives of the people who trusted us with their stories. “It has been such a long time behind those walls,” Dulce Rivera told ICIJ partner NBC News after she was freed. She is a 36-year-old transgender woman from Honduras whose experience featured prominently across many of our stories.

Techniques/technologies used:

In the fall of 2018, an envelope arrived for Spencer Woodman, an ICIJ reporter. Inside was a disc that contained 8,488 incident reports from 2012 to early 2017, including narrative details, describing placements of immigrants from at least 160 countries in solitary confinement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The Freedom of Information Act request was made nearly two years before.

The data sometimes contained information that was important for the analysis in different fields, including some with narratives. As part of the analysis process, ICIJ did text analysis of the fields “detailed reason” and “additional comments export” to identify, for example, cases in which minorities were affected. ICIJ also calculated the number of days each detainee was held in solitary confinement, and added the fields “days in solitary,” “LGBT,” “suicidal” and “record id,” as part of the analysis.

Our analysis, supported by more than 100 interviews and reviews of thousands of pages of documents obtained through other sources, was the first to bring to light the punishingly long confinements in isolation, the misuse of medical isolation, the abuse of “suicide watch” — and how detainees were routinely locked in isolation cells for stunningly minor incidents. We also spent months locating and interviewing dozens of current and former detainees around the world who had been placed in solitary by ICE.

The work was a powerful combination of shoe-leather reporting with data analysis done through a journalistic collaboration. The team coordinated its efforts and shared its findings through ICIJ’s communication platform, the Global I-Hub.

ICIJ made the data public in an interactive we built that allows users to explore the data, along with some highlights from our analysis. Excel, Google Sheets, Python, Javascript, CSS3 were used for the analysis and the creation of the interactive.

What was the hardest part of this project?

It took all of our efforts to track down and interview people who had spent time in solitary confinement in an ICE facility and were willing to share their stories on the record.  As the data team analyzed the records, reporters hit the ground, spending months interviewing immigrant detainees. We made a spreadsheet of more than a hundred immigrant volunteers and advocates who may have had knowledge of ICE’s solitary confinement practices. These sources proved pivotal in connecting our data with human stories. Team members travelled as far as India to talk to people who had served long stints in an ICE isolation cell before deportation.

The data obtained by ICIJ came with no documentation. ICIJ sent several follow-up questions to ICE after obtaining the data to get more details about how the data was gathered, the methodology, specifics and nuances of the different fields in the data. 

The team talked to experts and checked internally to confirm that there was a good understanding of the data.

The data was anonymized. Each row represented one incident, but some detainees were put in solitary multiple times. ICIJ focused on the incidents and we were careful to avoid double counting. 

The data was anonymized, sometimes contained non-standardized fields and information that was important for the analysis in different fields, including some with narratives. 

ICIJ did text analysis and standardized fields to address this.

The data does not reflect the total universe of detainees placed in solitary confinement from 2012 to 2017. ICE said it does not keep records of every solitary confinement placement. Instead it tracks only cases where detainees were held in isolation for more than 14 days, and where immigrants with a “special vulnerability” were placed in isolation. Some ICE detention centers may also under-report solitary confinement placements.

What can others learn from this project?

The project started with a Freedom of Information request that took almost two years to be responded. Planning information requests with time can be of help for investigative projects.

The trove of data we obtained paved the way for a unique understanding of how ICE uses, and misuses, solitary confinement. It also shows the importance to check for data documentation and talk to experts to get a proper understanding of the information, while working on the data analysis. 

The project also shows how powerful a combination of shoe-leather reporting with data analysis is. It was important to get testimonies from people under confinement that confirmed the findings in the data. The testimonies also provided more insights about the incidents that put the detainee under confinement and the treatment received in the different facilities. 

We focused on the experiences of people who spent months locked in tiny cells, alone with their thoughts and their fears. Theirs is a dehumanizing experience, and a damaging one — and we knew the project would register most with readers if we could convey powerfully what it feels like to languish alone for months. 

The accompanying videos amplify this effort, allowing readers to hear detainee voices for themselves.

Having established the harm, we then zero in on the systemic failures that allow the abusive treatment to persist. Comparing ICE policy against our findings spotlights the misuse and overuse of a form of punishment intended only as a last resort. Comments from the United Nations, and the DHS whistleblower, describing the treatment as tantamount to torture underscore our major finding. 

Our visual explainer seeks to drive home the fact that each “incident” in our data represents an actual person, a civil detainee, subjected to treatment deemed overly harsh in many U.S. prisons.

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