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Health

ICE Violated Its Own Medical Standards, USC Study Shows; Mesa Verde Detainees Aren’t Surprised

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Gabriel has been detained at the Mesa Verde Processing Facility for 15 months. He agreed to speak with KVPR but only if we didn’t use his last name. He says he’s afraid of retaliation from ICE. Detention has been especially hard during COVID. It was a battle, he says, just to get tested.

“It was bad, so bad,” he says in Spanish. “They were supposed to be testing us and the employees when I got there, but they weren't.” 

A judge agreed it was bad. On August 6th, 2020, after several protests including hunger strikes occured, a judge issued a second temporary restraining against ICE. It stated that the agency had “avoided widespread testing of staff and detainees at the facility, not for lack of tests but for fear that positive test results would require them to implement safety measures.” 

The order required ICE to provide weekly COVID-19 testing and to return rapid test results to all detainees. Gabriel’s medical file shows he took a COVID test on August 3rd, three days before the order was issued. On August 14th Wellpath, the healthcare provider at Mesa Verde, checked “No” to the question of whether Gabriel would be notified.

“We had to continuously bother them for the results of the test because they didn’t want to give it to us,” he says. He didn’t get the result for more than a month. And it was positive. 

A study by the University of Southern California’s Medical Center reflects Gabriel’s experience. It shows the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement violated its own internal medical practices over a seven year period ending in 2018. 

The study ended before Gabriel was detained but the medical neglect he experienced is consistent with the study’s findings. In 78% of the 55 cases reviewed, where someone died while in ICE custody, the agency had violated its own medical care standard. Co-author of the study, Molly Grassini says ICE’s own death investigation reports support these findings. 

“Their own review process demonstrated to them that, in that large majority of cases where a person ultimately died, they had violated their own medical care standards within that facility,” she says.

Grassini says she remains concerned about conditions in ICE facilities especially as death rates for detainees have increased due to the pandemic. She also worries that the agency’s records won’t reflect the true number of deaths caused by its medical neglect because some people with COVID die after being released.  

“That to me, still should be something that is attributed to their detention and falls into the responsibility of the ICE care practitioners in the ICE detention facility,” she says.

The USC study also reviewed the death investigation reports of eight men who died by suicide in ICE’s care. Not one of the individuals was under observation for suicide riskat the time of his death. That’s also the case for a man who died by suicide after the study was published, 74-year-old Choung Woon Ahn.

Lawyer Lisa Knox with the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice is part of the team representing Ahn’s family. She blames his death during the height of the pandemic on a direct lack of care by ICE officials. 

“For most of those people, and for Mr. Ahn, it wasn't those underlying conditions that really led to his death,” she says. “It was the facility's failure to provide care that led to his death and so many others.

Ahn had health issues including lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension and a history of heart attacks. But Knox says that’s not what ultimately killed him. He also suffered from mental health issues. 

“Someone from our legal team had made the facility aware that he was suffering mental health distress,” she says. “Also, the facility was on notice, both because of his own self reports and because of medical records they'd received for him of his mental health issues.”

Still, she says police and autopsy reports show ICE violated its own medical practices by leaving Ahn unsupervised for 18 minutes while he was in quarantine. ICE detention standards state anyone who's at risk for suicide or significant self harm has to be under constant one-to-one visual observation. Knox says Ahn’s death as well as the eight other suicides reported in the study were preventable. 

“In his case, just like, like so many others, had these facilities, had these operators, been providing the care and protection they should have these deaths just wouldn't have happened,” she says.

Donavan Grant also believes Ahn’s death was preventable. Grant led hunger strikes for better sanitary conditions inside the detention center before he was released last year. He says he and Ahn were good friends.   

“We used to chop it up; cook together and everything,” he says. “That man went to medical for a little issue and never came back up.”

USC co-author Molly Grassini says she hopes ICE will use the study to make improvements in its medical care.   

“There is a significant need for increased transparency, oversight and external evaluation of the medical care practices and psychiatric practices that are going on with ICE detention facilities so that any further deaths could be avoided.”

KVPR reached out to ICE for a response to this story. A spokesperson for the agency said in a statement that ICE cannot comment due to ongoing litigation.