A week after warning, ICE detainee dies from COVID-19

Three Stewart Detention Center detainees have died from COVID-19 this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Three Stewart Detention Center detainees have died from COVID-19 this year. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Complaint criticized virus precautions, claimed unwanted gynecological procedures on detainees

A week after a whistleblower reported inadequate protections for COVID-19 at one Georgia immigration detention center, a detainee at another has died from the virus.

Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, 61, a Mexican national who had been held at Stewart Detention Center near Lumpkin, died early Monday in a Columbus hospital. He was the third COVID-19 fatality among Stewart detainees this year.

The death was confirmed by Stewart County Coroner Sybil Ammons, who said Chavez-Alvarez also had hypertension, gout and sleep apnea. He had been hospitalized since Aug. 15.

“He had been in really bad shape for at least two weeks,” Ammons said, “like at death’s door.”

Chavez-Alvarez’s death underscored the dangers posed by the coronavirus in closely congregated Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities. In a complaint filed last week, a whistleblower and several advocacy groups said another ICE facility, the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, had failed to protect both detainees and employees from the virus.

The same complaint alleged that several detainees had undergone gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies, without their consent. Some of the same women were punished earlier this year for calling attention to the coronavirus threat, advocates said.

In April, nine women spoke about COVID-19 at Irwin on a recording captured from a video conferencing system that allows detainees to communicate with lawyers and relatives.

“We’re very afraid of being incarcerated here and dying here,” one detainee said. Like the others, she was visible on camera but not identified by name.

Another woman said she had been the first Irwin detainee to contract the virus. But at the facility’s medical clinic, “they simply dismissed me,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re fine, go back to your cell.’”

A third detainee, fighting tears, held a hand-lettered sign asking for protection. “We’re scared,” she said. “My God, we’re scared.”

Detainees who have complained about COVID-19 include Pauline Binam, a native of Cameroon who has been in ICE custody since 2017. Binam says that in August 2019, a gynecologist working for the Irwin detention center, Dr. Mahendra Amin, removed one of her fallopian tubes without her consent while she was under anesthesia for another procedure. At least 17 women have reportedly told their lawyers of similar experiences.

Amin denies the allegations.

After transferring to a Texas detention center, Binam was placed in lockdown in her cell for 30 days for complaining about COVID-19 protections, said the Rev. Leann Culbreath, an Episcopal priest and immigration advocate who befriended Binam at Irwin.

Without naming Chavez-Alvarez, ICE said Monday it would provide more information about his death as it becomes available.

The virus has claimed two other Stewart detainees: Jose Guillen-Vega, 70, of Costa Rica died last month, and Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, of Guatemala died in May.

As of Thursday, 339 cases of COVID-19 had been documented at Stewart and 43 at Irwin, ICE data shows. Stewart has a capacity of 1,752 detainees; Irwin, 1,201.

Nationally, almost 6,000 ICE detainees have contracted the virus and seven have died.

“As we mourn another tragedy at the deadly Stewart Detention Center, we ask decision makers what else it would take to shut down this horrid prison,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, one of the advocacy groups that have filed the complaint against Irwin. “We demand immediate action before the loss of additional human life.”

Ammons, the coroner, said the toll at Stewart could have been much higher.

“I am amazed that at this point, considering the death rate around the country, that more of them have not died,” she said. “They are trying to do something right out there ― that’s my opinion.”

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