Being Brutalized and Isolated, Covid and Denial of Mental Health Care Made Life Unbearable in Last Year of Trump Administration
It’s no surprise that conditions of immigrants in detention centers under the Trump administration were abominable. Who can forget the horrible optics of kids in cages? But they were so bad that the suicide rate last year spiked to 5.3 times the prior 10-year average.
The last time cause of death was described and suicides could be measured for immigrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, was in 2015. But annual suicide rates for migrants in ICE detention had not previously been reported before a study published recently by AIMS Public Health.
And when calculating the suicide rate based on admissions per fiscal year, the rate jumped to 3.4 suicides per 100,000 admissions, an alarming 11 times the prior 10-year average.
The Biden administration has stopped placing detained immigrants in two county jails facing federal probes for complaints of abuses against immigrants.
The growing suicide rates among ICE detainees may be related to increased lapses in mental health care for detainees. A congressional investigation in 2020 found major issues in mental health care inside detention centers, including delayed psychiatric appointments, placement of patients with mental health disease in solitary confinement and falsified observation logs for suicidal patients.
Some of the issues can be attributed to chronic staffing shortages; vacancy rates for psychiatrists and social workers have been previously reported between 37% and 50% in immigration detention facilities.
No doubt the Covid pandemic also played a large part in last year’s suicide rates. Centers enforced strict movement restrictions that saw 23.5 hours per day in lockdown. And solitary confinement was used as a quarantine method.
ICE reports what it says are all detainee deaths on its website. ICE reports shows 17 deaths in custody in the 2020 budget year, almost double the nine deaths in 2019 and 2018. There are four reported detainee deaths the first eight months of the current budget year. The linked pages include detailed reports on what ICE says happened in each death but only after listing any criminal records, which seems intended to dirty up the reputations of the dead.
The authors of the study are recommending that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pursue an independent investigation of suicides in 2020 to evaluate deficiencies in safety and mental healthcare services for detainees. They also recommend that Congress limit immigration detention in line with international law and human rights standards.
Abuse and conditions for ICE detainees have long been horrible. The Biden administration has stopped placing detained immigrants in two county jails facing federal probes for complaints of abuses against immigrants.
In a memo to ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson, Mayorkas stated, “Allow me to state one foundational principle: we will not tolerate mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.”
Mayorkas ordered ICE to immediately end its contracts with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts and to transfer remaining detainees elsewhere. As part of the termination, Mayorkas directed ICE to rescind an agreement with the sheriff’s office that trained and deputized the local sheriff’s office as ICE agents to screen inmates for criminal activity that could lead to deportation.
In a dispute over coronavirus testing last year, staff members at the North Dartmouth, Mass., facility used pepper-ball projectiles, pepper spray, a stun grenade and unmuzzled police dogs against immigrant detainees. So much pepper spray was deployed that three detainees had to be taken to the hospital for respiratory distress and a fourth had to be revived with chest compressions, though instead of going to the hospital for care, they were placed in solitary confinement.
That prompted an investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey into Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and his office’s use of excessive force. Hodgson offered to send inmates to the Southern border to help build Trump’s wall and regularly corresponds with Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller.
A second investigation was launched by the state Senate, which found that Hodgson broke the law when he blocked state Senator Sonia Chiang-Diaz’s access to the jail the day after the horrible pepper-spray incident.
Now the Office of the Inspector General at the DHS is conducting an investigation.
Last spring, a class-action lawsuit was filed seeking the release of detainees due to Covid risks. At the time the suit was filed, there were 148 immigrants detained at the center. Now, there are just seven.
Meanwhile, Mayorkas has directed ICE to cut its contracts with the Irwin County Detention Center in rural Ocilla, Ga., about 200 miles south of Atlanta, as soon as possible. The county owns the facility, but it is run by a private contractor, LaSalle Corrections.
The DHS inspector general’s office and the FBI are investigating claims made last year by a former nurse who filed a whistleblower complaint alleging female detainees were subject to unwanted gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies.
Mayorkas said in a memo he would schedule a meeting next week with DHS officials to plan to close the Irwin facility and discuss his concerns with other federal immigration detention centers. He’s expected to do a sweeping review of facilities in the coming weeks.
The move is part of President Joe Biden’s broader plan to overhaul the more than 200 county jails and detention centers that house immigrants in deportation proceedings.
Biden has pledged to end for-profit immigration detention and reverse Trump’s roundup of immigrants. Arrests of immigrants in the interior of the country have plunged by more than half under Biden. Jails are detaining about 20,000 immigrants these days compared with more than 50,000 a day under Trump.
Featured image: Staged ICE photo