ICE detainee wasn’t observed as required before he hanged himself

Stewart Detention Center records gathered by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified Jean Jimenez-Joseph as a “suicide risk.” Jimenez had been placed on “suicide watch” and was undergoing mental evaluations at Stewart before he hanged himself. Contributed photo.

Stewart Detention Center records gathered by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation identified Jean Jimenez-Joseph as a “suicide risk.” Jimenez had been placed on “suicide watch” and was undergoing mental evaluations at Stewart before he hanged himself. Contributed photo.

Immigration authorities in South Georgia failed to check on a detainee they had deemed a “suicide risk” as often as they are required before he hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell in May, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s standards say detainees kept in isolation must be observed “at least every 30 minutes on an irregular schedule.” But the private officers who were hired to operate Stewart Detention Center didn’t visit the cell containing Jean Jimenez-Joseph, 27, for two longer periods in the final few hours before he was found hanging, according to video footage the Georgia Bureau of Investigation gathered as part of its probe. One period stretched for 46 minutes, and the other lasted 32 minutes until he was spotted with his sheet around his neck.

Further, a private detention officer who was assigned to check on Jimenez logged three visits to his cell that never happened, the video shows. That officer, Freddy Wims, did not respond to telephone calls for comment. His “employment was terminated” on June 29, according to CoreCivic, the Nashville, Tenn.-based corrections giant that operates the detention center through agreements with ICE and Stewart County. A company spokesman declined to comment further about Wims but said CoreCivic cooperated with the GBI’s investigation and is doing the same with ICE’s internal probe.

“The safety and well-being of the individuals entrusted to our care is our top priority,” CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said in a prepared statement, “and we take seriously our obligation to adhere to federal Performance-Based National Detention Standards in our ICE-contracted facilities.”

After the AJC asked ICE about the GBI report, the federal agency forwarded that report to its Office of Professional Responsibility for review. ICE declined to say what that probe entails and when it will be finished.

“ICE holds its personnel and contractors to the highest standards of professional and ethical behavior, and the agency takes all allegations of misconduct seriously,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in a prepared statement. “ICE will continue to monitor the situation and respond appropriately based on the outcome of the investigative findings.”

Jimenez was among 12 people who died in ICE custody in the fiscal year that ended last month, according to the agency. The day after Jimenez killed himself, an Indian national who was being detained by ICE in Atlanta died at Grady Memorial Hospital because of complications from congestive heart failure.

The revelations about Jimenez's death come as the Trump administration is ramping up immigration enforcement and seeking more space to hold many more people facing deportation. This year, the government opened another privately operated immigration detention center in Folkston, near the Georgia-Florida border.

The GBI investigated Jimenez’s death to determine whether any criminal laws were broken, finding there was no foul play in his suicide. While the GBI did not focus on how the detention center cared for Jimenez — saying that was outside the scope of its probe — the evidence the agency gathered sheds some light on the final days of his life. The AJC obtained the GBI’s voluminous investigative file through Georgia’s Open Records Act.

ICE took custody of Jimenez on March 2 in Wake County, N.C., following his conviction for motor vehicle larceny. Jimenez battled schizophrenia, had a history of suicide attempts and had been institutionalized before ICE detained him, records show.

Detention center records gathered by the GBI identified Jimenez as a “suicide risk.” He had been placed on “suicide watch” and was undergoing mental evaluations at Stewart, a nurse there told the GBI. Another detention center nurse told the GBI that she saw Jimenez standing on the toilet in his cell and banging on a mirror several days before his death. He told her voices in his head were telling him to kill himself. She scheduled an appointment for him to see a doctor about increasing his medication, but that appointment was set for the same day he hanged himself using a sheet tied to a sprinkler head in his cell.

On April 27, he was placed in solitary confinement in the Stewart Detention Center for 20 days after he jumped off a second-floor walkway, according to the GBI’s records. On May 2, he was given three more days in isolation for exposing himself to the nursing staff.

ICE’s standards say suicidal detainees may be held in special isolation rooms but must be monitored “every 15 minutes or more frequently if necessary.” An ICE spokesman declined to comment on whether authorities at the detention center had classified him that way, citing the agency’s investigation. But Wims indicated to the GBI that Jimenez was not being held in solitary confinement based on concerns that he was suicidal, though Wims said there were four other detainees who were being segregated at the same time and who were required to be checked every 15 minutes.

Wims also told the GBI he was busy that night, checking on detainees on both floors of the cellblock, taking one with scabies to the shower area and filling out paperwork. After he spotted Jimenez hanging in his cell at 12:43 a.m., he got on his radio and declared an emergency. The authorities rushed into Jimenez’s cell and tried in vain to revive him. Photos and video from inside the cell show someone had drawn all over the white walls. One of drawings reflects long, squiggly shapes and declares: “The grave has cometh” and “Hallelujah.”

Jimenez’s family attorney, Andrew Free, wondered whether his suicide could have been prevented had the detention officers checked on him when they were supposed to under their policies.

“That is why those requirements exist — to protect the health and safety of the people in there,” Free said. “Not performing those tasks is not an option. There is no discretion there. They are mandatory. And when you blow past those guardrails — when you run outside those lanes — it creates an intolerable risk to the safety of detainees. And unfortunately, that is what happened here.

“The question that Jean’s family is going to be left with — that other detainees and the public might be left with — is what would have happened if CoreCivic had actually complied with these legal requirements that they were under? What if the actions that they took actually reflected what was in the log? What if those two things were accurate? And we will never know.”