Three California legal counseling agencies are calling on the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate the death of a 74-year-old man with documented mental illness who died in medical isolation from suicide in a medical isolation facility in Bakersfield.
The organizations have the authority of the state to regulate detention centers within its borders and also call on Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate the death of Choung Woohn Ahn at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, owned and operated by GEO Group. Investigating the health and safety of prisons such as Mesa Verde; and to hold contractors like GEO civilly and criminally liable for acts that violate the provisions of their federal contracts.
“ICE and GEO have repeatedly violated their own standards – which they wrote – leading to Mr. Ahn’s death,” said Trevor Kosmo, an attorney for Oakland-based legal aid agency Centro Legal de la Raza, one of the organizations filing the complaint . “The state of California can’t wait for the federal government to act. We need the state to act and hold the GEO Group accountable.”
The complaint to Homeland Security related that ICE and GEO Ahn were not providing adequate and timely medical and psychological treatment, as well as a number of other issues, which violated the Constitution, federal law on disabilities and mandatory standards for prisons, and “ultimately caused his death “. “
Centro Legal de la Raza, along with Disability Rights California, a legal services organization that investigates and litigates alleged violations of the rights of Californians with disabilities; and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, a coalition of volunteer legal service providers that supports imprisoned immigrants; filed the complaint with the Homeland Security Bureau and Becerra on Thursday.
ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor said the agency could not comment on the complaint due to “ongoing litigation”. He added, “However, the lack of comment should not be construed as approval or determination of any of the allegations.”
According to a company spokesperson, GEO Group declined to comment on the complaint.
The attorney general cannot comment on a potential or ongoing investigation “to protect its integrity,” a spokesman said, directing further comments to Homeland Security.
Homeland Security has not yet responded to requests for comment.
Attorney: “No medical reason” to isolate Ahn
The complaint is based on Ahn’s clinical and detention records from Mesa Verde, medical records and incident reports from the Bakersfield Police Department, and interviews with 16 witnesses who interacted with Ahn in the days and weeks prior to his death. It relies on these records to paint the picture of an older man with a documented history of suicide attempts as well as chronic health conditions whose death, according to the organizations, was preventable.
Ahn was born in South Korea and became a legal permanent resident of the United States in 1988. However, his status in the country was threatened after a domestic dispute in 2011.
He did not advocate an attempted murder with an enhancement to the use of a firearm in 2013 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. After serving less than nine years in prison, he was released from Solano State Prison in Vacaville last February. ICE immediately arrested him and held him in Mesa Verde while he awaited deportation proceedings.
The pandemic hit California shortly afterwards and lawyers, fearing the virus might penetrate the confined spaces of the detention center, advocated the release of Ahn and other medically vulnerable immigrants. They argued that Ahn should be released on bail due to his age and history of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and severe heart problems, including a recent heart attack, among others.
But ICE pushed back and a federal judge denied Ahn’s bail.
Ahn’s physical and mental health deteriorated while in detention. During his three months at Mesa Verde, medical service providers diagnosed Ahn with “unspecified depressive disorder” and documented his history of suicide attempts according to ICE’s Congressional public report of his death.
Ahn’s condition became more urgent after employees put him in isolation after a stay at a local hospital because of chest pain – “allegedly for medical quarantine, even though he tested negative for COVID-19” – the complaint said.
Centro Legal’s Kosmo claims there is “no medical reason” for staff to isolate Ahn and that “cannot be compared” to the facility’s COVID-19 logs at the time.
“At the same time as they claimed Mr. Ahn must be kept in medical isolation despite testing negative for COVID, they were regularly accepting incoming referrals from large prisons with confirmed large outbreaks of COVID-19 without testing or taking those individuals Quarantine in medical isolation, “said Kosmo.
Isolation was also associated with known risks. Medical studies have documented how solitary confinement is linked to both physical and mental health problems – a fact that the Inspectorate General of Homeland Security confirmed in a July 2020 report: “Proper surveillance of detainees in segregation is particularly important in light of research on segregation can have harmful psychological effects and is an established risk factor for suicide. “
However, state and federal government reports have described inappropriate segregation practices in private immigration detention centers.
For example, a September 2020 report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security found that detention centers are using segregation “as a form of threat or retaliation to gain control and compliance.” It asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct a review of ICE’s use of segregation.
The Attorney General’s 2021 report on the detention of immigrants in California also identified the “overuse and overly restrictive nature of restrictive housing units for disciplinary and administrative segregation” as a “systemic problem” at Mesa Verde, as well as with private immigration facilities in Adelanto and Canada Calexico. All three facilities housed inmates with severe mental illnesses in restrictive housing units, “despite the isolation of segregation that worsened inmates’ conditions.”
Such reports did not protect Ahn.
The day before Ahn’s death, a clinical and forensic psychologist visited him in isolation and found that he had difficulty sleeping and reported feeling sad, low on energy, and bored in his room alone. The doctor found that Ahn appeared to be “at high risk of suicide on deportation” according to records provided to The Desert Sun by attorneys advocating his release from custody.
The next day, another provider described his mental health as “severe” and wrote “Reportedly high risk of suicide on deportation,” the records show.
Ahn likely felt his deportation was imminent, Kosmo said – his hearing to defend or challenge his immigration charges was scheduled for two days later and he didn’t have an immigration attorney to represent him on his deportation case.
According to ICE standards, detainees found to be at risk of suicide or self-harm must be referred to a mental health provider and the detainee must be subject to constant individual monitoring until this assessment. Monitoring must be documented every 15 minutes or more.
Despite reports that Ahn appeared to be at high risk of suicide when he was deported, he was not on a suicide watch and does not appear to be under constant surveillance the night of his death, according to the Bakersfield Police incident report.
On the evening of May 17, GEO guards were instructed to check on Ahn every 15 minutes, the report said. The surveillance footage description describes how 17 minutes passed after being checked by a security guard before someone else knocked on his door several times, then opened it and found it dead in the shower.
“Despite his known mental health problems, even though ICE knew he was someone who was in a very vulnerable state, they put him in solitary confinement, knowing that this exacerbates existing mental health problems and understands the negative effects this has on anyone – and you didn’t monitor him, ”said Lisa Knox, legal director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice. “There are all sorts of rules and regulations designed to protect people from this very situation.”
Complaint: solitary confinement was a “death sentence”
ICE and GEO violated both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which protects people from discrimination based on their disability, and Ahn’s constitutional rights when they put him in medical isolation.
“Solitary confinement was a criminal offense for Mr. Ahn – a death sentence indeed,” it says. “ICE and GEO put Mr. Ahn at high risk of injury by deliberately placing him in extreme isolation and disadvantage, knowing that doing so would worsen his pre-existing mental illness – while not providing him with adequate mental health care or properly monitoring him. ”
The complaint also alleges that ICE and GEO violated ICE detention standards by “failing to provide timely and adequate mental health care; lack of timely and adequate medical care; Failure to follow proper screening protocols; do not adequately assess the risk of self-harm; Non-compliance with medical housing standards; and non-compliance with suicide prevention standards. “
Ahn’s death is alleged to be a systemic problem: “ICE and its contractors routinely abused medical isolation and disproportionately harmed the most vulnerable inmates – such as people with disabilities and black migrants – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The organizations managing the complaint also shared the document with Becerra’s office, asking it to “take all enforcement measures that are within your competence”.
“Your office is uniquely located to take this action because previously [Office of Inspector General/Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties] Audits were inadequate, “they wrote.” To protect the lives and well-being of those incarcerated, we need a concerted effort to hold ICE and its contractors accountable. “
Centro Legal’s Kosmo made a more direct request.
“How many more people have to die before the AG can do anything?” he said.
Rebecca Plevin reports on immigration for The Desert Sun. Reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @rebeccaplevin.