Immigrants detained in Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, New Jersey say they are not receiving adequate mental health care, according to complaints obtained by Documented. The detainees say they are not receiving proper psychiatric medication and do not have adequate access to mental health professionals.
“Medical keeps making errors with my meds…I take strong psych meds,” one immigrant detainee wrote. “Can I please get help in these matters before I lose it?”
The jail has put 60 detainees on suicide watch since 2015, according to records Documented obtained from the facility. One detainee warned that a cellmate appeared to be having a psychotic break. Four detainees have attempted suicide in the last two years. Details of the death of one detainee indicate that Essex personnel failed to follow certain required procedures.
The mental health issues among immigrant detainees at Essex come as a recent report based on an unannounced inspection last summer by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Inspector General, confirmed generally poor conditions at the Essex Facility: “We identified serious issues relating to safety, security, and environmental health that require ICE’s immediate attention. These issues not only constitute violations of ICE detention standards but also represent significant threats to detainee health and safety,” the report said.
Among other things, the report stated that a loaded gun had been found by an immigrant detainee in a staff bathroom, food was rotting, shower stalls were unsanitary, mattresses were unusable and detainees lacked outdoor recreation areas.
Grievance records obtained by Documented through an open records request last December contain notes such as these:
“My hernia [is] getting worse every day and I fear for my life,” wrote one detainee in March of 2017.
Over a year later, detainees continued to raise flags about delays in care.
“I need the psychiatric doctor, not a second and third referral that go nowhere,” another wrote in November 2018.
“[My] inmate in cell has been exhibiting psychotic episodes. He is becoming a health hazard to everyone at this point,” a desperate detainee wrote multiple times. He didn’t get a response from someone at the facility for 15 days.
One mental health counselor at Essex said “there were not enough mental health resources to meet the needs at the facility,” according to Eleni Bakst, a fellow with Human Rights First, who visited the facility in February 2018 and led the report on inadequate care for immigrants in New Jersey detention.
While most of the grievances submitted to the Essex County Correctional Facility were reviewed and responded to by the facility’s medical department in a matter of a few days, in many cases, detainees were told to submit “medical sick call requests” to be scheduled to see a practitioner. In cases of urgent medical emergencies, detainees were told to alert their housing officers who would notify the medical department on their behalf.
Death at Essex
One public incident report of a detainee’s death suggested issues with care at Essex.
In 2016, Luis Alonso Fino-Martinez, a 54-year-old ICE detainee, was found unconscious lying off his bunk in the Essex facility. Another detainee tried to revive him with CPR. When officers came by, they allowed the detainee to continue chest compressions on Fino-Martinez because he looked like he a had a “handle” on it, according to the death report that Documented reviewed. Fino-Martinez later died at Essex of natural causes due to hypertension and cardiovascular disease with congestive heart failure.
Fino-Martinez received Temporary Protective Status in 2003, but continued to live in the United States after his residence was terminated a year later. He had two counts of criminal activity on his record, and was taken into ICE custody in 2015 at the Essex Facility, where he was detained until his death.
An investigation by ICE following his death found several deficiencies. The facility never gave Martinez an EKG test to determine his heart rate upon his medical intake, which is a national requirement by ICE. Martinez was a Type 1 Diabetic and although he refused to take his insulin doses for four months, the medical provider wasn’t notified and refusal forms weren’t completed.
It is not uncommon for undocumented immigrants who come into custody via ICE to have their medical care interrupted, says Lauren Quijano, a health justice organizer for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
“Whatever treatment ICE detainees were receiving outside [isn’t] communicated by ICE to make sure they’re getting the same treatment inside the facility,” Quijano says about the immigration detention system in general. She said detainees may submit grievances daily but may not see a physician for a few days to a few weeks, which can delay actual treatment for months.
CFG has been criticized
The medical services provider at Essex, Center for Family Guidance Health Systems (CFG), has come under fire at other nearby jails in recent years. Hudson County Correctional Facility, which is two miles away, last year fired CFG after four inmates who were not ICE detainees died by suicide.
“CFG has done a terrible job, especially with their suicidal inmates,” says Walter Luers, a New Jersey public records attorney, who obtained footage of Hudson County Correctional Facility’s suicide watch rooms where officers shined flashlights through small peepholes to observe isolated detainees inside.
Suicide deaths appear to be higher among undocumented immigrant detainees than among those in the general prison population. Nationwide, suicides accounted for 7 percent of all inmate deaths in 2014, the highest rate since 2001, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Within the immigrant detainee population, over 12% of deaths since 2003 (when ICE began tracking deaths) were suicides, according to data Documented compiled and updated from American Immigration Lawyers Association and ICE press releases. ICE data supplied by the AILA shows 15 suicides among the 108 detainee deaths between October 2003 and March 2010. An additional 79 deaths, including nine suicides, have occurred since 2010, according to ICE press releases.
In a statement via email, CFG said it is working to prevent suicides at facilities that it manages. “CFG works ardently and in collaboration with jail administration, corrections staff and providers to ensure that quality mental health services are provided and that patient safety, a top priority, is maintained.”
New ICE standards for facilities
In 2011, ICE set new standards for contract detention facilities and county jails that hold ICE detainees to help prevent suicides—such as training staff in suicide prevention and offering Spanish translation to all detainees who don’t speak English. Objects like razor blades, shoe strings, socks, or nooses made out of braided bed sheets are supposed to be confiscated. Supervision every 15 minutes, welfare checks every eight hours, and daily mental health treatment is expected for detainees who express suicidal thoughts.
In a statement to Documented, Anthony Perillo, the ICE Program Director at Essex said its suicide watch is “one-on-one observation,” but would not specify how long detainees are isolated or what their observation entails. Essex did not respond to questions about the nature of their suicide watch or where detainees are placed. Across the country in the last year and a half, three ICE detainees died after being placed on suicide watch, according to ICE’s death records.
“The use of suicide watch in many cases is punitive,” says Dr. Homer Venters, the former Chief Medical Officer of the New York City jail system, commenting on the practice at large. Solitary confinement is often used as a response to detainees who exhibit signs of mental illness but may be counterproductive. Venters has urged the Department of Corrections to eliminate the practice of solitary confinement for people with mental illness.
In May of last year, a 27-year-old Panamanian died by suicide after spending 19 days in solitary confinement at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. He called ICE’s helpline and repeated suicidal thoughts, according to documents reviewed by The Intercept. About a year later, another detainee took his life at the same facility after spending three weeks in solitary confinement. Both detainees had been diagnosed with mental illnesses.
Mergensana Amar, a Russian asylum seeker, the most recent ICE detainee to die by suicide, was placed in voluntary protective custody at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington after he talked about hurting himself. He later died in a nearby hospital.
Advocates for detainees say that putting those who express suicidal thoughts in isolation is the wrong solution. “Suicide watch looks exactly like solitary confinement…it looks like isolation and exacerbates the problem,” says Mary Small, the Policy Director at Detention Watch Network.
Three types of isolation
There are often three types of isolation in detention facilities, according to Detention Watch Network: disciplinary segregation, which is punishment for breaking a rule; administrative segregation, which is segregation from the population for a detainee’s own protection; and suicide watch, which is used for those who express suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
“But all three of those look like the same thing,” says Small.
When facilities don’t have a designated suicide watch wing, inmates will go to a solitary cell in the medical wing, in the same place where others get treated for medical conditions.
“ICE detainees are not criminals, they’re civil detainees,” says Bakst. “You have standards that detail how civil detainees should be treated. That includes things like freedom of movement and extended recreation.” Fear of ending up in isolation discouraged detainees at the Hudson County, New Jersey facility from talking to staff on-site about their mental health concerns, according to a 2018 report by Human Rights First.
The OIG report details Essex Facility’s lack of outdoor space and recreation. Detainees at Essex currently exercise within housing units with mesh cages allowing outside air. According to the report, “ICE standards require that all detainees be allowed outdoor recreation time outside their living area,” yet Essex does not currently meet this requirement.
ICE responded to the report, saying that it had completed multiple inspections of the Essex facility in recent years, including annual contract inspections. It promised to take “corrective actions to address the issues identified” in the report.
The ICE Office of Detention Oversight hadn’t reviewed the facility since April of 2016. When the office found deficiencies at the facility, ICE said it “ensured corrections were completed.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s OIG said it will conduct follow-ups on every recommendation issued in the report every 90 days until each recommendation is closed and resolved.