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Death Rates Rise in ICE Detention Facilities

FEI LU, HOST: Between 2019 and 2020, the number of people in ICE custody decreased by a third. But as Arcelia Martin reports, while the population of those in ICE detention is dropping, the number of people dying in custody is rising.

ARCELIA MARTIN, BYLINE: Last spring Marcial Morales-Garcia started feeling tired. He got a fever and he felt nauseous. He took a COVID-19 test. It came back positive. But Morales-Garcia was being held by ICE at Essex County Jail in New Jersey. So he was put in quarantine. In solitary confinement. For 21 days.

MARCIAL MORALES-GARCIA: “I was freezing in there and no medication, no clean water, we had to drink water from the toilet sink.”

MARTIN: Morales-Garcia takes daily medication for diabetes and depression. He says his time in solitary confinement aggravated a growing sense of hopelessness.

MORALES-GARCIA: “At one point I just got so sick, so depressed that I…”

MARTIN: He began to self harm, months later, he was put on suicide watch.

According to the most recent ICE data available, over a one and a half year period, nine detainees died by suicide. When asked about the rise in deaths, ICE said in an emailed statement “it is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.” The agency also said it ensures that facilities comply with National Detention Standards.

But there were more than two dozen other deaths too, from COVID and the Flu.

And a recent University of Southern California study found over half of all of the deaths in detention facilities from the last few years, were preventable. Sophie Terp is an emergency room doctor at USC and is one of the authors of the study.

SOPHIE TERP: If that illness is potentially preventable in some way, the deaths from that illness could also be considered preventable.

MARTIN: Terp says, bottom line, ICE needs improved medical care. She says another potential problem is lack of enforcement of guidelines for ICE medical staff who don’t comply with national standards for care.

TERP: But the consequences for detention facilities not complying with their internal standards seems to be less clear to me. And I think that having sort of greater monitoring and potentially consequences for non adherence will be important for improving conditions in detention. --

MARTIN: James Roses is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He worked at the Frederick Adult Detention Facility in Maryland in 2019. He left after a year. He felt he wasn’t able to give good care to his patients.

JAMES ROSES: We were told, you're not doing therapy, you're just screening for suicide.

MARTIN: Rose was struck by the sense of hopelessness some of those detained described. Many were from El Salvador, a country they had fled to avoid gangs and violence.

ROSES: If they if they knew that they were going to be deported and t-hat they would be killed as soon as they got there, why not just take it into their own hands? You know, you get a rise hopelessness, you'll get a rise in suicide. It's that basic.

MARTIN: The detention Watch Network is an advocacy organization aimed at abolishing ICE detention. It says the lack of freedom in detention “coupled with the lack of medical and mental health services, is a lethal combination.”

Morales-Garcia, who spent 10 months in ICE detention, was released with a GPS anklet last November. While awaiting his board of immigration appeals hearing, he’s advocating for ICE detention to be abolished.

MORALES-GARCIA: Why they put my life in danger, why they did all this to me, when they could just use a monitor and release me how they did at the end?

ICE says it makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis.

Arcelia Martin, Columbia Radio News.

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