The Panamanian national who hanged himself in an immigration detention center in South Georgia in May had a history of suicide attempts and had been institutionalized before the federal government took custody of him and placed him in solitary confinement for 19 days, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Authorities at the privately run Stewart Detention Center should have known about Jean Jimenez-Joseph’s history and his battles with schizophrenia because he had previously been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility by Wake County, N.C., authorities, said his family’s attorney. Those county authorities participate in a federal immigration enforcement program called 287(g).
The Wake Sheriff’s Office declined to comment, saying Jimenez’s medical records are not public. A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said his agency is investigating Jimenez’s death and whether officials at Stewart knew about his medical history.
Meanwhile, ICE is making changes in the isolation cells at Stewart that are designed to prevent suicides, according to records obtained by the AJC through Georgia’s Open Records Act. The changes, an ICE official said, were planned long before Jimenez’s death and are “ongoing.”
These developments come as the Trump administration is seeking more detention space amid a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration. The government recently opened a new privately operated immigration detention center in Folkston, near the Georgia-Florida border. And in a memo issued in February, ICE directed its officers to “take enforcement action against all removable aliens encountered in their course of their duties.”
In 2013, the Obama administration issued a new policy limiting the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers, saying it should be used “only as a last resort” for people with special vulnerabilities, including mentally ill people. The move followed intense criticism of the practice from immigrant rights groups. Critics worry about the psychological harm that prolonged solitary confinement may do. But advocates for stricter immigration enforcement say authorities must have the option to segregate people so they can keep their detention centers safe.
Jimenez’s mother brought him to the United States as a child. He overstayed his visa but later obtained a temporary reprieve from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A high school wrestler who then studied architecture in college, he was a fiercely loyal to his friends, said his sister, Karina Kelly-Jimenez.
She said he sounded suicidal in one of their telephone conversations while he was at Stewart.
“He had become extremely frustrated with the staff there,” she said. “He would tell me and my mom things like: ‘Everyone here is against me. No one is going to help me. They don’t believe that I have schizophrenia. They don’t believe me that I have a mental disorder.’ And he would also tell me about the voices he kept hearing, which I knew came from his schizophrenia there.”
Jimenez, 27, was the seventh person to die in ICE custody this fiscal year, which ends in September, according to ICE. An Indian national who was being detained by federal immigration authorities in Atlanta died a day later at Grady Memorial Hospital because of complications from congestive heart failure, ICE officials said.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said his agency has medical practices in place for detainees who appear suicidal. He has previously said that had Jimenez “expressed any kind of suicidal ideation, there would have been a specific medical reaction to that.” Cox added his agency is probing Jimenez’s death and looking into whether the authorities at Stewart knew about his history of mental health problems.
“The specifics of that are all part of the investigation by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility,” he said.
Officials at CoreCivic, the Nashville, Tenn.-based corrections giant that operates the Stewart Detention Center through agreements with ICE and Stewart County, issued a statement saying it is “committed to ensuring a safe, secure and humane environment for everyone entrusted to our care.” CoreCivic added that it follows detention center standards and that ICE monitors its work through scheduled and unannounced inspections.
Meanwhile, ICE has asked CoreCivic to expand and renovate the medical facilities at Stewart and add 13 more officers to those areas at a cost of more than $1.9 million, records show. The project includes adding plumbing fixtures and fire sprinkler heads in the “mental health/suicide cells” that are designed to prevent people from hanging themselves on them. Jimenez hanged himself with a sheet using a sprinkler head in his room, said his family’s attorney, Andrew Free. The renovation project has been in the planning stages for at least three years, according to ICE.
“If this had been done, he might not be dead today,” Free said.
ICE said it took custody of Jimenez on March 2 in Wake County following his conviction for motor vehicle larceny. Five months earlier, the Wake Sheriff’s Office had petitioned a court to involuntarily commit Jimenez after he stated he was hearing voices, appeared anxious and depressed, and admitted to being “psychotic,” court records show. He was seen by a psychiatrist at the Wake Detention Center and given medication.
There were efforts in January to have him involuntarily committed again, according to North Carolina state health records. Those documents say he had a history of suicide attempts. Further, records from Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, where Jimenez was taken the night he committed suicide at Stewart, show he had a history of schizophrenia and suicide attempts and had taken medication including risperidone, an antipsychotic drug.
“In investigating and attempting to understand the facts surrounding Jean’s death, it has become apparent that solitary confinement is being used as a substitute for mental health care” at Stewart, Free said. “Based on what we have learned, we are very concerned that not only was this a contributing factor in Jean’s death but that this poses an ongoing risk to detainees with mental health issues who are currently detained there.”
Meanwhile, a Salvadoran man was recently placed on “suicide watch” in solitary confinement at Stewart after seeing the aftermath of Jimenez’s suicide, according to the man’s attorney. Abel Blanco-Ramirez, 20, told his mother and his attorney he worries he could suffer the same fate as Jimenez. Ramirez, who has been held for more than 120 days at Stewart, has been diagnosed with anxiety and takes medicine for it, said his attorney, Eric Hovdesven.
An ICE official declined to comment about Ramirez’s medical care and isolation at Stewart, citing his agency’s privacy rules.
Ramirez fled his native country when he was 11 or 12 following gang threats, court records show. In El Salvador, his aunt, uncle and 9-month-old cousin were murdered. One of the killers, who has not been caught, has a grudge against Ramirez’s family, Hovdesven said. Hovdesven is seeking to get Ramirez released from Stewart on bond and for the government to grant him asylum so he can stay in the U.S.
Ramirez, a home remodeler and the father of a U.S.-born son, was arrested on charges of possessing marijuana and damaging property, but those charges were dismissed, Hovdesven said.
His mother, Silvia Guadalupe Blanco, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., said in Spanish through an interpreter that she hoped he would not be deported.
“I pray to God for the people to give my son an opportunity to stay in this country,” she said.
Ramirez — who was held in an isolation cell across the hall from Jimenez — said he saw Jimenez’s body after authorities rushed into Jimenez’s room and sought to revive him, Hovdesven said. The lawyer said an official at Stewart told him Friday that Ramirez was no longer being kept under observation for medical reasons, though he is still being held in solitary confinement. Ramirez told Hovdesven on Monday that he was a week into a 30-day stay in isolation for a rules infraction. He was placed in isolation for medical observation one other time after officials at Stewart observed him missing sleep, pacing his room and talking to himself, Hovdesven said.
“I’m worried about him being in segregation because one day he could have a bad day,” Hovdesven said. “Who knows what is going to happen.”