Federal authorities are investigating the death of a Panamanian national who was being held in solitary confinement in an immigration detention center in Stewart County, located more than 100 miles southwest of Atlanta.
Jean Jimenez-Joseph, 27, died after he was found unresponsive — with a sheet around his neck — in his cell at the Stewart Detention Center at 12:45 a.m. Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a prepared statement. The preliminary cause of his death, according to ICE, was ruled to be “self-inflicted strangulation.”
Jimenez had been in solitary confinement for 19 days before he died, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which is also probing his death. ICE isolated him, according to the GBI, after he was observed jumping off a second floor walkway at Stewart.
“They said he just was always clowning around and trying to get attention,” said Danny Jackson, GBI’s special agent in charge for southwest Georgia. “They stuck him in isolation for 20 days.”
Jimenez’ isolation was extended for three days after he exposed himself to a nurse there, Jackson said. Jimenez did not leave any notes behind that would shed light on his death, Jackson said.
“He was in an isolation cell all by himself,” Jackson said. “All the indications are that he used his bed sheet.”
Detention and medical workers unsuccessfully sought to revive him, ICE said, and he was pronounced dead at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus at 2:15 a.m. the same day.
ICE has contacted Panamanian consular representatives, who have notified Jimenez’ next of kin. He is the seventh person to die in ICE custody this fiscal year, which ends in September, according to ICE, and he is the first detainee from Stewart to die in more than eight years. Nine of the 352,000 people who were held in ICE custody nationwide during the fiscal year that ended last September died, according to the federal agency.
“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” ICE said in its news release issued Tuesday morning. “Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the rate of the U.S. detained population as a whole.”
ICE said it took custody of Jimenez on March 2 in Wake County, N.C., following his felony conviction for motor vehicle larceny. He was in the middle of deportation proceedings at the time of his death. He has also faced assault and drug-related charges in Raleigh, N.C, according to Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification records.
ICE placed Jimenez in isolation one other time in April for five days for fighting with another detainee, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.
About 20 detainees were isolated in an average week at Stewart in 2012, according to ICE records. Nationwide, the weekly average was about 300, according to the data, which covered a period of more than four months. Nearly half of those placed in isolation were held there for 15 days or longer. Nearly 11 percent were mentally ill. In general, most were segregated for disciplinary reasons or to protect them and others from harm, ICE said.
In 2013, the Obama administration issued a new policy limiting the use of solitary confinement in federal immigration detention centers. The move followed intense criticism of the practice from immigrant rights groups. Critics object to isolating people who are being detained for immigration violations, which are civil offenses. They also worry about the psychological harm solitary confinement may do. But advocates for stricter immigration enforcement point out that many people held in immigration detention centers have been convicted of serious crimes. They said federal authorities must have the option to segregate them so they can keep their detention centers safe.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking more detention space as it cracks down on illegal immigration.
Roberto Medina-Martinez, a Mexican native, died while in ICE custody in 2009. He was being held at Stewart. His widow filed a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit, saying he died from myocarditis — or an inflammation of the heart muscle — because of the federal government's negligence. She reached a confidential settlement in 2012 with the government, which denied negligence and said it "did not breach any duty of care in connection with the allegations" in the lawsuit.
This month, Project South and the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic released a report criticizing conditions at Stewart and at the Irwin County Detention Center, a federal immigration detention center located in Ocilla, Ga.
“The suicide of this young immigrant at Stewart is a horrific tragedy that could have been prevented,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, an Atlanta immigrant rights advocacy group. “Stewart must be shut down immediately."
Timeline of Jean Jimenez-Joseph’s death Monday
12:45 a.m. During scheduled monitoring, officials at Stewart Detention Center find Jimenez-Joseph unresponsive with a sheet around his neck in his cell. They immediately begin CPR and contact Stewart County Emergency Medical Services.
12:57 a.m. Stewart County Emergency Medical Services officials arrive at the detention center.
2:15 a.m. Jimenez-Joseph is pronounced dead at Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.