Deaths in custody show the folly of immigration arrests and mass incarceration
Eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonso died in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Christmas Eve. He was the second Guatemalan child to die in U.S. custody last month. Three weeks earlier, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died in Border Patrol custody. [Miriam Jordan / New York Times]
Gomez Alonso was transferred with his father to four facilities in the six days that he was detained. The border facilities are often known as “hieleras” or iceboxes. In a 2017 report, the American Association of Pediatrics recommended that children not be held in the facilities because of the low temperatures. In response to Gomez Alonso’s death, the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, ordered the agency to conduct more rigorous screenings of children at the border. Federal agents arrested over 21,000 families in November 2018 alone. The president of association, Dr. Colleen Kraft, told the New York Times that conditions in border facilities “might make children ill or make their conditions worse, if they are already ill.” Dr. Kraft told the Times that the children undergo only cursory screenings and what is necessary is “pediatric expertise available to train medical personnel, monitor conditions in the facilities and be part of the accountability for caring for these children.” [Miriam Jordan / New York Times]
Public health experts have emphasized that the government, by placing children in custody, takes responsibility for the children’s health. One public health expert told CNN.com: “The government has taken custody of these children, and they have to own that responsibility. You can’t just take custody without responsibility.” [Elizabeth Cohen / CNN.com]
The two children’s deaths highlight the poor treatment of immigrants in custody. The Guardian reports that at least 12 immigrants died in 2018 in CBP facilities or detention facilities that contract with or are run by ICE. Apparent causes of death include suicide and medical neglect. [Erin Durkin / The Guardian] Last year, a report on medical care in ICE custody identified at least eight deaths due in part to dangerously substandard medical care. [Madison Pauly / Mother Jones]
Deaths in custody are not limited to immigration custody. They are far too common across prisons and jails in the United States though an exact tally does not exist. The last set of national statistics was compiled in 2016 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and only included figures through 2013. [Matt Clarke / Prison Legal News]
BJS counted over 4,400 deaths in custody across the country in 2013 (likely an undercount), averaging over a dozen a day. Among those who died in jail, the vast majority had not been convicted. Forty percent of those who died had been jailed for three days or less.
In 2018, reporting from across the country shined a light on in-custody deaths, highlighting troubling conditions in jails and prisons. In Cleveland, six deaths in the space of four months in the local jail led to a judge announcing that he would no longer set bail on people charged with low-level offenses because of concerns over the jail’s conditions. [Karen Zraick / New York Times] In Mississippi, 15 people died in a single month in the custody of the Department of Corrections last August, prompting the state, under the glare of media scrutiny, to ask for FBI assistance in investigating the deaths.
In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in November that 71 people had died in county jails since 2013. That count was available because of legislation mandating reporting, but was also almost certainly an undercount. Mirroring national trends, approximately half of those who died in jail did so by suicide, and the majority of people died within their first week in jail. Many of those who died were in withdrawal, highlighting the failure of jails to provide adequate treatment. Across Utah, only three jails have policies providing access to detoxification drugs. [Jessica Miller / Salt Lake Tribune]
In October, the News & Observer reported that North Carolina jails were on track for the deadliest year yet. 33 people died in the first eight months of the year, either in jails or in custody in hospitals. The reporting highlighted the multiple failures to adequately supervise people at risk of suicide. When subsequent investigations revealed these failures, the families who had lost loved ones were rarely informed. [Dan Kane / News & Observer]
And just a few days before Felipe Gomez Alonso’s death, Janice Dotson-Stephens, a 61-year-old grandmother, died while in custody in Bexar County, Texas. Dotson-Stephens died by suicide after being locked up for 150 days because she could not afford the $300 bail that barred her way to freedom. She was jailed pretrial on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, her first ever arrest. At the time of her arrest, her family believed she would be taken to the state hospital, as she had been after previous encounters with police. It was only after her death, that they learned that Dotson-Stephens, who had a history of mental illness, had been in jail. [Monique Judge / The Root]
These deaths are a tiny fraction of the thousands in jails, prisons, and immigration detention facilities across the country last year. They are the result of the policies and decisions that put people behind bars, whether for a few days or for life spans, and other policies that endanger people and fail them once they are incarcerated. These include cash bail systems that jail people because of poverty and sentencing policies that condemn the elderly and ill to die in prison. They include the failure to treat people in withdrawal, inadequate medical and mental health care, solitary confinement, and staff brutality and neglect. All deaths in custody, those of children and of grandmothers, show how vulnerable the millions of people we incarcerate are once they are behind bars.