NEW DETAILS: ICE detainee from Mexico dies in South Georgia

Fourth Stewart Detention Center detainee to pass away since 2017
Four Stewart Detention Center detainees have died since 2017. JEREMY REDMON/

Four Stewart Detention Center detainees have died since 2017. JEREMY REDMON/

A 44-year-old Mexican man died this week while in the custody of federal immigration authorities in South Georgia, becoming the fourth Stewart Detention Center detainee to pass away since 2017.

Pedro Arriago-Santoya's preliminary cause of death was heart infection and multi-organ failure, according to a news release issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thursday.

Nationwide, nine of ICE’s more than 396,000 detainees died in the last fiscal year ending in September. Arriago-Santoya is the seventh to die this fiscal year.

Here's how ICE described his final days: On Saturday, Arriago-Santoya complained of abdominal pain at Stewart, in Lumpkin. A nurse practitioner there assessed his condition. He was transferred that same day by ambulance to the Southwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Cuthbert.

The following day, he was transferred to the Piedmont Columbus Regional-Midtown campus for surgery consultation based on suspected gall bladder disease. Arriago-Santoya went into cardiac arrest at the hospital on Monday. The medical staff there placed him on a ventilator and put him in an intensive care unit. He went into cardiac arrest again on Wednesday and died.

Two detainees have hanged themselves in their solitary confinement cells in Stewart since May of 2017. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed how the detention center's staff did not monitor them as often as required before they killed themselves. A third Stewart detainee died last year from pneumonia.

"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 a statement Thursday. "Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a small fraction of the rate of the U.S. detained population as a whole."

ICE said it took custody of Arriago-Santoya on April 24 in Appling County after his arrest by local law enforcement for public drunkenness and a probation violation stemming from a May 2015 disorderly conduct conviction in Chatham County. On June 6, a federal immigration judge ordered him deported. ICE was preparing to return him to Mexico when he died.

Operated by CoreCivic, a Nashville-based corrections company, Stewart has grappled with drug smuggling, chronic medical staff shortages and persistent safety problems that one employee called a "ticking bomb," according to internal records from a U.S. Homeland Security Department Office of Inspector General report published in 2017.

“We have been raising the alarm about the horrific conditions at the Stewart Detention Centers for many years,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, an immigrant advocacy organization. “Our calls for accountability and redress have been repeatedly ignored. How many more immigrants should perish at this awful place rife with human rights abuses before it’s shut down?”

Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney who teaches at Emory University, called Thursday for the detention center to be closed.

“It is unconscionable,” said Kuck, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It should be shut down.”