Six Years Later, Still Waiting
New FOIA Records Show More of What DHS CRCL Has Been Hiding at Stewart: “Among the dirtiest medical spaces I have ever seen in a US detention facility.”
CRCL Discovers ~5,000 More Pages of Records
Jean Jimenez died in a solitary confinement more than six years ago at CoreCivic’s Stewart Detention Center. For nearly as long, some federal immigration agencies have stonewalled his family in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about his death. Even after being sued, the some of the very federal offices whose job it was to prevent Jean’s death still refuse to fully comply with his family’s demands for information.
Today was no different. Once again, the government has magically discovered more records, but is unable to apply that same magic to their timely production. So once again, a federal detention oversight agency has asked for another year before it faces judgment for violating the right to know that Jean’s family and the public enjoy under federal law.
After repeatedly representing to Judge James Boasberg and Jean’s Estate (for whom I previously served as counsel) that it conducted an adequate search for records, and all responsive records had been produced, today the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties disclosed it had located an additional 4,999 pages of responsive records.
If FOIA gives twenty working days for an agency to make a determination about a FOIA request, why is Jean’s family still in court? Each time Jean’s family has refused to accept the government’s demonstrably absurd assertions that no more responsive records exist, the government has responded with roughly the same response: “Not only are there now a LOT more records, but its’ going to take you another year to get them and challenge all the redactions in them. And there’s nothing you can do to stop us.”
At some point, one would think shame might kick in for the United States Attorney and agency counsel delivering these messages. Either by natural, professional attrition or to guard against the creeping shame of what’s coming out, the US government has rotated teams guarding the secret (public) records in litigation, much as hostage-takers might switch the minders to prevent them from beginning to empathize with their captives.
Yes: There was a pandemic. Yes: It stole lots of productivity from certain agencies deemed non-essential to the functioning of a self-proclaimed democracy on lockdown. Interestingly enough, the Department of Justice issued a COVID memorandum specifically warning agencies that unless additional, exceptional circumstances prevented compliance with statutory deadlines, COVID was not a free pass for violating them.
So, let’s see what CRCL’s been hiding . . .
“Among the Dirtiest”
In February 2017, weeks before Jean arrived at Stewart, an independent expert delivered to DHS CRCL a dire warning: With 1806 people locked inside, Stewart was medically understaffed and operating in violation of its own standards. When Jean arrived, everyone at ICE knew the place was not equipped to handle people whose mental health conditions meant they would need a higher level of care. And during his initial interview, he disclosed those very conditions, causing facility staff to put him on suicide watch.
CoreCivic and ICE accepted Jean for caging at Stewart knowing it didn’t have the capacity to care for him. Then he died from the very things CRCL’s expert said would endanger people’s lives. This is the unavoidable conclusion we reach from reviewing the CRCL Expert Memorandum the agency released to Jean’s family several weeks ago.
The Findings, which the CRCL expert certified “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty”, are basically a preview of what Jean’s Detainee Death Review and Root Cause Analysis would also conclude:
Stewart had “insufficient medical and professional staffing” for the number of people locked inside. This short-staffing violated the staffing plan, and the Performance-Based National Detention Standards. As the expert explains, it would also lead to delays in treatment that would violate the standards of medical care to which all people locked inside Stewart, including Jean, are entitled.
Stewart had “insufficient and inappropriate space” for medical care. Because the facility lacked sufficient medical isolation rooms, it put people needing medical observation into solitary confinement. This undermined the purpose of medical observation because nursing staff are not present to observe people inside, and using punitive confinement like solitary erodes trust between patient and provider.
Stewart had “among the dirtiest medical spaces I have ever seen in a US detention facility.” The description of the space CoreCivic used to deliver care - trashcans overflowing and un-emptied for days, an examination pad so cracked it was impossible to sterilize, pills strewn on the floor - must be read to be believed. When asked about the unsanitary state of the place CoreCivic and ICE were supposed to care for humans’ medical needs, Stewart’s Health Services Administrator concurred in the assessment and provided documentation of his own unanswered janitorial complaints. (I don’t think I’ll ever read another ICE or CoreCivic press release discussing the high standards and proven quality of detention services without this specific conclusion coming to front of mind. Sort of gives away the game for everyone that a real care professional walked in and looked around at the cage and said, “it’s filthy in here,” and everyone sort of nodded and moved along.
Stewart’s inadequate staffing left “Custody Support inadequate for Medical Care Program.”
Stewart failed to accommodate people with disabilities. This included a person who needed crutches, braces, and a wheelchair to move, but had those necessities denied by CoreCivic and ICE at Stewart for five months—until reviewers arrived.
The memo is available here.
This memo won’t help Jean’s family maximize any recovery against his cagers. They settled their lawsuit against the US in 2021 for $925,000.
Their FOIA case will continue until the last record is pried out of the clutches of this deadly system because they know all too well the price of the government’s illegal, transparency-killing delay tactics.
If we’d had these records back in February 2018 — when we filed Jean’s FOIA lawsuit, it’s possible that we could have saved Efrain Romero de la Rosa’s life. Efrain died a death nearly identical to Jean’s in July 2018. His family’s suit against CoreCivic remains pending in federal court in Georgia.
The records CRCL has been sitting on all this time concluded that neither CoreCivic nor ICE took the steps experts recommended after Jean died that would potentially prevent another similar death. Here, CRCL concludes Stewart Detention Center’s response to the Corrective Action Plan ICE and Feedback Plan ICE created after Jean’s death to measure the facility’s implementation of recommendations.