Report: Health effects of indefinite detention

June 21, 2011

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today released a report which examines the harmful health effects of indefinite detention.

The report, “Punishment Before Justice: A Report on Indefinite Detention from Physicians for Human Rights,” documents how the indeterminacy of an indefinite detention creates a degree of uncertainty, unpredictability and uncontrollability that causes severe harms in healthy individuals independent of other aspects or conditions of detention. 

“Over the years PHR has documented the medical and psychological injuries individuals in detention have suffered, but many of these harms are the results of torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment,” said Hans Hogrefe, Chief Policy Officer at PHR. “This is the first report that looks at the effect of indefinite detention, independent of the other abuses, and the findings make a clear
case for ending this damaging practice.” 

According to the report, the harmful psychological and physical effects of indefinite detention include:

  • Severe and chronic anxiety and dread;
  • Pathological levels of stress that have damaging effects on the core physiologic functions of the immune and cardiovascular systems, as well on the central nervous system;
  • Depression and suicide;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder; and
  • Enduring personality changes and permanent estrangement from family and community that compromises any hope of the detainee regaining a normal life following release.

Individuals most likely to be detained indefinitely include those detained for purported national security reasons and noncitizens, including asylum seekers, in immigration detention. Many immigrants, including asylum seekers who have fled violence and persecution, are subjected to detention while awaiting the outcome of their immigration cases. Periods of detention can last for months or years, even for individuals who pose no security threat. 

“Asylum seekers who have already been traumatized by torture or persecution in their home countries are especially vulnerable to the ill effects of indefinite detention,” said Hogrefe. “The severe harms associated with indefinite detention can make their existing physical and psychological symptoms much worse and eliminate all possibilities for healing.”

In the report, PHR calls on the United States to abolish all policies mandating or permitting indefinite detention. Among the recommendations, PHR calls on the government to strictly limit mandatory detention in the immigration setting to ensure that individuals who do not pose a security threat or flight risk have the opportunity to pursue release from detention.

More information

Download the report [PDF]