A 44-year-old man has become the eighth person to die in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since October, after being held for ten days in a private prison facility that federal investigators found last year to be rife with mold and chronically understaffed, and which has seen the deaths of three other detainees since 2017.
ICE published a press release on Thursday naming the man as Pedro Arriago-Santoya. According to the release, Arriago-Santoya was transferred from the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, to Southwest Georgia Regional Hospital on July 20 after complaining of abdominal pain. He was transferred again the next day to Piedmont Midtown Medical Center for a surgical consultation.
Arriago-Santoya subsequently went into cardiac arrest on July 22 and was placed on a ventilator in intensive care, where he lingered for two more days before he went into cardiac arrest again. The attending physician pronounced him dead at 3:10 p.m. Wednesday.
BuzzFeed News first reported the death of Arriago-Santoya, a Mexican national.
According to the ICE release, medical staff identified Arriago-Santoya’s preliminary cause of death as “cardio-pulmonary arrest secondary to multi-organ system failure, endocarditis, dilated cardiomyopathy with a low ejection fraction and respiratory failure.”
A call to the agency’s office at Stewart Detention Center went unanswered. Agency policy is to notify Congress, the media, and the public within two business days of any in-custody death.
Arriago-Santoya had been detained at the Stewart Detention Center since July 10, when an immigration judge ordered his deportation. The detention center, the largest such facility in the Southeast, is owned and operated by CoreCivic, the nation’s second-largest private prison operator, and houses roughly 2,000 detainees under ICE contract.
Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs, told The Daily Beast that no foul play was suspected in Arriago-Santoya’s death and that “his death appears to be from natural causes.” When reached by phone, a CoreCivic phone operator at the Stewart facility referred The Daily Beast to ICE’s media office.
In the constellation of detention centers across the country, Stewart has been a particular trouble spot for the agency, with federal investigators reporting last year that staff described a “chronic shortage” of medical personnel, calling the facility’s inadequacies “a ticking time bomb.” In addition to finding a “continuous” flow of illegal drugs into the facility—helped in part by Stewart employees themselves—federal investigators were told by detainees that the detention center’s showers, hallways, and occasionally food were infested with “significant mold growth,” and that wait times for outside medical care could last for more than a month.
CoreCivic has also faced criticism for practices at other facilities. In May 2018, the company was sued for allegedly forcing detainees to work for as little as $1 per day in exchange for toiletries.
Although investigators ruled the level of medical care at Stewart “acceptable,” numerous vacancies for medical staff and the detention center’s remote location made access to emergency care “limited”—Piedmont Midtown Medical Center, where Arriago-Santoya died, is an hour’s drive from Stewart.
At the time of the federal inspection, the facility had job openings for seven registered nurses, three licensed practical nurses, a medical doctor, a licensed clinical social worker, and a psychiatrist, although ICE said last year that the facility had since hired more medical personnel. The agency stated that Arriago-Santoya was “promptly” attended by a nurse practitioner once he fell ill.
At least three other detainees at the Stewart facility have died in ICE custody since 2017—two of them by suicide, a stunning statistic considering that detainees told federal investigators last year that “there are too few mental health treatment centers” at the facility.
Last July, Mexican national Efraín de la Rosa was pronounced dead after he was found unresponsive in his cell at Stewart. The 40-year-old had hanged himself from the railing of his bunk bed.
Jean Jiménez-Joseph of Panama died in May 2017, also by suicide. Jimenez-Joseph, a 27-year-old DACA recipient, began psychologically deteriorating following a head injury the year before, and lost his DACA status after he was charged with stealing a car. Jimenez-Joseph had called a federal hotline from Stewart six weeks before his death, after he heard voices urging him to kill himself.
After an attempt to harm himself by leaping from a balcony and an incident where he exposed himself to staff, Jimenez-Joseph was placed in solitary confinement, where CoreCivic employees reportedly failed to check in on him as frequently as ICE policy stipulates. He was found in that cell at 12:43 a.m., hanging by a noose fashioned from a bed sheet.
In Feb. 2018, Yulio Castro Garrido, a 33-year-old Cuban national, died after being transferred to a series of medical facilities for pneumonia diagnosed at Stewart.
Arriago-Santoya is the eighth person to die while in ICE custody since Oct. 2018, a total that does not include the deaths of seven other people who have died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection this year.
“Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare,” said the ICE release notifying the public of Arriago-Santoya’s death, and “occur at a small fraction of the rate of the U.S. detained population as a whole.”