Immigrant Deaths in Private Prisons Explode Under Trump

A man killed himself after 19 days in solitary confinement, days before another man died of heart failure.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

DALLAS—Men and women held by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement are on pace to die at double the rate of those who died in ICE custody last year, a Daily Beast review of ICE records found. And most will die in privately run facilities.

Eight people have died in ICE custody in the 2017 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, 2016. That’s almost as many as the 10 who died in the entire 2016 fiscal year. All but one of the deaths this year, and all but two last year, occurred in privately run prisons. Nine of the 18 deaths occurred at facilities run by GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest private prison company.

Jean Jimenez-Joseph hanged himself two weeks ago at a CoreCivic-run facility in Georgia after 19 consecutive days in solitary confinement, according to immigrant advocates in the state. Days earlier at a GEO-run facility in Texas, an Afghan mother seeking asylum from the Taliban tried to hang herself but lived. Atulkumar Babubhai Patel died of congestive heart failure in Georgia’s Atlanta City Detention Center that same week.

The uptick in deaths have come after a spike in arrests of immigrants thanks to executive orders signed by President Trump. In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, ICE said it arrested more than 41,000 people—an increase of 37 percent over the same period last year.

On any given day, 35,000 men, women, and children are held inside more than 200 immigrant detention facilities, according to ICE’s 2017 budget. Attorneys and advocates are concerned that the arrests are overcrowding facilities already criticized by watchdogs over understaffing, poor medical care, and violence.

“You’re guess is as good as mine,” said Matthew Kolken, a Buffalo-based immigration attorney, when asked if overcrowding and worsening conditions could be resulting in more deaths. “But if I were in one of these facilities, I wouldn’t want to bet my life on the staff and conditions there.”

Just before 1 a.m. on May 15, Jimenez-Joseph was found unconscious in his cell at Stewart, run by CoreCivic. The 27-year-old had hanged himself, ICE said, adding that he was taken to a hospital located 35 miles away, where he was pronounced dead.

CoreCivic directed The Daily Beast's questions to ICE. In a statement, ICE said Jimenez-Joseph had been placed in solitary confinement for fighting with another detainee, and his stay in solitary was extended after allegedly exposing himself to a female employee of the facility. He was scheduled to be released from solitary the week he hanged himself, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said.

Two days prior to hanging himself, Cox said, Jimenez-Joseph’s mother and father visited him at Stewart. The next day, members of an advocacy group were denied a meeting with Jimenez-Joseph by CoreCivic employees, according to Cox. A CoreCivic spokesman did not immediately say why members of the group were not allowed to see Jimenez-Joseph.

Other times at Stewart, solitary confinement has been used to punish detainees who went on hunger strike to protest conditions, according to a study conducted by immigrant-advocacy group Project South and PennState Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic.

“What we’ve seen is that solitary is used as punishment for a variety of things, but especially for protesting conditions,” Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South said. “They’re far away from their homes and families, they don’t have access to an attorney, so, really, putting their bodies on the line [in hunger strikes, for example] is often their only form of protest.”

Samira Hakimi would have been another suicide death, had she succeeded in her attempt in the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, on May 12, according to advocates.

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Hakimi, her husband, and their two daughters arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in December and turned themselves into authorities. The family was seeking asylum after being threatened by the Taliban for running Western-style schools near their home in Afghanistan. After being taken into custody, Hakimi was separated from her husband and taken to Karnes, a facility that holds immigrant mothers and their children, according to Amy Fischer of RAICES, an immigrant advocacy group.

Hakimi and her sister-in-law—who was also separated from her husband at the border—passed a credible fear interview, the first step toward being granted asylum in the U.S., according to Fischer. But the mothers were denied release by ICE. The agency has not said why Hakimi and her family have not been released.

“She has watched other people pass their credible fear interviews and be released, and I think that’s part of the difficulty for Samira,” Fischer said. “She and her kids are constantly seeing people leaving in short periods of time but her, her sister-in-law, and her sister-in-law’s child are still stuck there.”

RAICES has asked ICE to release Hakimi and her family, but she said those requests have been denied. ICE has not given a reason for continuing to hold Hakimi and her family, something that is common for release denials, Fischer said.

Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center is among those who have seen releases become less common under the Trump administration. But even before Trump took office, releases were used sparingly under former President Obama.

“At Stewart, we’re working with an incredibly low percentage of detainees being granted release after passing credible fear interviews,” Graybill told The Daily Beast.

CoreCivic and GEO Group have seen their stocks rise thanks to the Trump administration’s cancellation of a Justice Department order to phase out the use of private prisons for American citizens. The decree was seen by criminal justice reform advocates as a hopeful sign that private prison companies might soon be out of the business of running immigration detention facilities as well.

GEO runs the two facilities with the most amount of deaths in the last two years, The Daily Beast found. Four have died at the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, since October 2016. Three have died at the Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto, California, during that same time.

Despite the deaths and rampant complaints of poor conditions in its facilities, GEO has been the recipient of at least three large contracts since Trump took office. In December, the company opened an immigration detention center in Folkston, Georgia, that was funded partly by $116 million in taxpayer money. At the time, the company said in a press release the facility will result in $21 million in annual revenue.

In April, the company announced it will build a $110 million facility near Houston to hold immigrants—the first new immigrant prison of the Trump administration. That facility is expected to bring in $44 million in annual revenue, the company said.

Last week, the company announced it was awarded contracts with the Bureau of Prisons worth $664 million for two Texas facilities that hold illegal immigrants with criminal records.

Correction, May 30, 9:45 a.m.: Azadeh Shahshahani was misquoted saying Jean Jimenez-Joseph was placed in solitary confinement for protesting conditions in the facility. We regret the error.