Immigrant found dead in his cell was kept in solitary confinement for 19 days

Solitary confinement is often used as punishment.

This April 13, 2009 photo shows a detainee at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., leaving the cafeteria after lunch to go back to their living units. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kate Brumback
This April 13, 2009 photo shows a detainee at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., leaving the cafeteria after lunch to go back to their living units. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kate Brumback

An immigrant detainee kept in solitary confinement for more than two weeks was found dead by suicide at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia on Monday.

Jean Jimenez-Joseph , a 27-year-old undocumented immigrant from Panama, was found unresponsive in his cell by “self-inflicted strangulation,” according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) press release published Tuesday. Attempts to revive Jimenez failed. He was pronounced dead at 2:15 a.m. at the Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus.

Jimenez was kept in solitary confinement for 19 days, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), which is investigating the case. An ICE spokesperson told ThinkProgress Tuesday Jimenez had been placed in disciplinary segregation twice: once between April 13 and 18 for fighting with another detainee and a second time on April 27 for violating facility rules. His isolation was extended after a second disciplinary violation.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution further reported that Jimenez was placed in solitary confinement after he was “observed jumping off a second floor walkway at Stewart.” Jimenez’s isolation was extended for three days after he exposed himself to a nurse, the publication added.

The ICE spokesperson said Jimenez was scheduled to be released from disciplinary segregation this week.

Jimenez entered ICE custody on March 2 following his release from local law enforcement custody in Wake County, North Carolina on a felony conviction for larceny of a motor vehicle, the ICE press release said. Immigrants who serve out their prison term in local custody are often held in what’s called an “immigrant detainer” to be turned over to federal immigration authorities for potential deportation proceedings following their release.

ICE has contacted Panamanian consular representatives, who have contacted the next of kin.

Under ICE’s 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) — guidelines adopted by the Stewart facility regarding the treatment of immigrant detainees — people may be placed in medical isolation if they are at “high risk for violent behavior because of a mental health condition,” but such isolation should not be used for punitive purposes. According to the guidelines, “[t]he facility shall have a mental health staffing component on call to respond to the needs of the detainee population 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

But as a recent report by the immigrant advocacy group Project South and the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic alleged, mental health resources are minimal at the Stewart Detention Center, a facility run by the private prison company CoreCivic (previously known as Corrections Corporation of America), with only “a couple of men report[ing] receiving some type of mental health care.”

“There is no mental health service,” a male detained immigrant from Somalia told report researchers. “There is no therapy. They only put people in segregation when someone is ‘mentally ill.’”

“We found that solitary was often used as a means of punishing hunger strikers and others who protested the detention conditions — as well as minimal access to mental care services,” Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director at Project South, told ThinkProgress on Tuesday. “There are no mental health doctors at the facility.”

What’s more, immigrants held at the Stewart facility — which has an on-site immigration court — are the most likely in the country to lose their court cases and get deported. That’s in part because only six percent of detainees retained legal counsel, an August 2016 Human Rights First report found. Nationally 14 percent of immigrant detainees have legal counsel, a big determinant to whether immigrants are able to win their cases since those with legal representation are more likely to navigate the immigration court system.

As the Trump administration ramps up plans to expand immigration detention centers, advocates like Shahshahani are worried that ICE facilities will be held to lower standards and little accountability. Already, the administration has new jail contracts that contain fewer regulations that could dilute PBNDS standards, such as the requirement to check on suicidal inmates every 15 minutes.

“The situation will unfortunately worsen if Trump’s plans regarding the expansion of the immigration detention industry go into fruition with the many thousands of additional people picked up every year and detained in facilities that are scarcely able to provide the most basic of human rights,” Shahshahani said.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” the ICE press release said. “Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the rate of the U.S. detained population as a whole.”

Jimenez was the seventh immigrant to die at an ICE detention facility so far this year, according to ICE, and the first fatality of a detainee at Stewart in eight years.