“It is just so unfair that he went there in full health, full of dreams, full of everything that an immigrant has to be better in this country and he just came out as a dead body,” said Suarez, 23, of Aventura, Fla.
An Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter and photojournalist went on a ride along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Austell to give an intimate look at how they are doing their jobs amid the Trump administration's aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration.
An ICE spokeswoman declined to answer questions about how Castro got sick, elaborate on her agency’s first statement about him resisting medical help or say to what extent the federal agency communicated with his family about his condition and care.
“As this case is undergoing a comprehensive review, we aren’t able to provide any additional information at this time,” ICE spokeswoman Tammy Spicer said.
The detention center was the subject of a stinging report released last year by the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s Office of Inspector General, which cited long waits for medical care and other issues that “undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”
The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Anyone investigating Castro’s death would want to review the detention center’s medical records, learn if he had any pre-existing medical conditions and research whether ICE followed its policies in caring for him, said Dr. David Mathis, a longtime prison doctor who has served as an expert witness in legal cases focusing on prisoner illnesses and deaths in Georgia. The United States, Mathis pointed out, is still struggling with a deadly flu season that can afflict people in confined spaces.
“People who are detained are under stress. They may have other underlying illnesses. They may be immunocompromised,” said Mathis, a physician and surgeon for California’s prison system.
Last month, ICE issued a news release saying it had diagnosed Castro with pneumonia at Stewart and then transported him to the Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert on Jan. 7. Two days later, ICE transferred him to the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, where he was placed on a ventilator. On Jan. 17, he was moved again, this time to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. He slipped into a coma five days later and never regained consciousness, according to ICE. A spokeswoman for the Mayo Clinic declined to comment, citing patient privacy.
ICE said it took custody of Castro on Nov. 24 after he was transferred from a federal prison in Folkston, near the Georgia-Florida border. On Dec. 8, 2016, Castro was convicted of conspiracy to transport an unauthorized immigrant within the United States and sentenced to a year and a day in prison and three years of supervised probation, according to ICE. A federal immigration judge ordered his removal to Cuba on Jan. 4, and he waived his right to appeal, ICE said in its news release.
RELATED: Report: Safety problems at immigration detention center in S. Georgia
CoreCivic, a Nashville, Tenn.-based corrections company that manages Stewart through agreements with ICE and Stewart County, referred questions about Castro to ICE.
Castro is the third ICE detainee held in Georgia to die since May. On May 15, Jean Jimenez-Joseph, 27, a Panamanian national with a history of mental illness, hanged himself with a sheet in his solitary confinement cell at Stewart. A day later, Atulkumar Babubhai Patel, 58, an Indian national who was being detained by ICE at the Atlanta City Detention Center, died at Grady Memorial Hospital because of complications from congestive heart failure.
Nationwide, 10 detainees died in ICE custody in the fiscal year ending in September 2016, or less than 3 per 100,000 detainees. In contrast, the death rate for federal Bureau of Prisons detainees was 262 per 100,000 in 2014, the most recent date for which such statistics are available.
Castro’s family is probing what happened to him with attorney Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South, an immigrant rights organization, as well as Atlanta attorney Brian Spears. Spears represented the widow of Roberto Medina-Martinez, a Mexican who died 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.
RELATED: Immigrant’s wrongful death suit settled
Last week, the Trump administration unveiled a spending plan for fiscal 2019 that includes $2.8 billion for 52,000 immigration detention center beds, an increase of 621 beds from the government’s previous proposed budget.
Castro grew up in Matanzas, Cuba, immigrated to America, got a green card and started washing dishes and driving trucks to support his family, Suarez said. He was detained at Stewart for less than two months before he got sick. His relatives grew anxious when they weren’t able to reach him for nearly a week in early January. That’s when a fellow detainee at Stewart called Castro’s uncle and told him Castro had been taken to the hospital. His family began contacting ICE but found it difficult getting information about Castro.
Castro’s relatives drove to Stewart but couldn’t get the authorities there to tell them where Castro had been taken, Suarez said. A friend told them Castro was in the hospital in Albany. After his family returned to Miami, ICE moved Castro again. This time the family enlisted the help of a Florida congresswoman’s office to track him down to the Mayo Clinic, Suarez said. His family was there when he died.
At his funeral in Miami this month, his relatives watched a slide show including photos of him growing up as a young boy in Cuba, getting married and spending time with his wife and son in America. They buried him Feb. 10. Suarez was so stunned by his brother’s death — it was difficult for him to believe he died from pneumonia — that he sometimes thinks Castro is still alive in the immigration detention center and will one day be free.
“I still can’t believe it,” Suarez said. “He had always been really healthy.”
Inmates are seen inside the Stewart Detention Center in this 2010 file photo.
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