Despite Documented Abuses, Inaction Results in Death of Transgender Woman at the Otero County Processing Center
Following the tragic death of Johana Medina, a transgender woman who was seeking asylum and detained at the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC), Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) in the Chihuahuan Desert and Freedom for Immigrants are calling for the immediate release of all gay and transgender individuals currently in the facility. Due to a history of inadequate medical care at OCPC, we also call for the immediate release of anyone detained at the facility who has a medical problem as prolonged detention could result in more needless deaths.
Johana, or Joa as she was known, was detained at OCPC for the last two months. On June 1st, it was reported that she died after being dropped off at an El Paso hospital and abruptly released from custody. For weeks she had suffered inadequate nutrition, medical neglect, and isolation in the facility. As early as May 10, other transgender women expressed serious concerns about Joa’s weight loss, stomach issues, and developing illness. Over the weeks, those concerns grew more intense. The women had issued numerous requests for medical treatment and were deeply concerned by the inaction taken by OCPC medical staff. On Monday, May 27, Joa was removed from the pod with the other transgender women and placed in medical. The following day, she was dropped off at the hospital and released from detention. She died in that same hospital six days later.
Joa’s death, like so many deaths in immigration detention, could have been prevented. But in our vast network of immigrant jails and prisons, and specifically at OCPC, her death was, unfortunately, likely. At a time when OCPC is under intense scrutiny for failing to protect LGBTQ individuals held in its facility, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and facility staff permitted the death of Joa as a result of their substandard medical care and failure to take her illness seriously. It is clear that detention is a death sentence.
Even more heinous, it appears that ICE and Management & Training Corporation (M&TC), the private prison company that manages the prison, tried to hide Joa’s death in ICE custody by releasing her on her own recognizance when she became too ill. It is disturbing that ICE, which has prosecutorial discretion to release people from detention at any moment, chooses to free people when they are on their deathbeds as a way to evade responsibility. This is a reflection of a larger, dangerous pattern. Earlier this year, ICE released José Ibarra Bucio, a DACA recipient detained at Adelanto ICE Processing Center, from custody before his death.
The latest death comes just a few months after the ACLU of New Mexico, Santa Fe Dreamers Project and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center raised the alarm about sexual harassment and abuse of gay and trans individuals at OCPC. In a letter addressed to ICE, DHS officials and OCPC Warden Dora Orozco, the advocacy groups asked for safe housing conditions; adequate medical care; an end to retaliation; and staff training on how to be respectful, non-discriminatory, and inclusive. OCPC’s response to providing “safe housing” was to sequester the transgender women in Special Housing Units (SHU), ICE’s euphemism for solitary confinement. Two months later, there are still complaints about both the lack of adequate medical care in the facility and retaliation. No meaningful change has been made to ensure better conditions for those detained in OCPC. Two months later, Joa is dead. ICE detention is not safe for anyone, but it is especially dangerous to those with medical conditions or those from vulnerable populations.
Local advocates have been calling attention to medical neglect, abusive conditions, discrimination, and retaliation at OCPC for years. A report released last year cited medical neglect, harassment and discrimination, and abuse of of solitary as problems at OCPC. This was on the heels of a report from the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released at the end of 2017 that cited poor conditions, a negative climate for those in detention, and violations with regard to solitary confinement at five facilities in the U.S., one of them being OCPC. Government watchdog groups have documented the problems at OCPC. And in the last month OCPC figured prominently in a series of investigative pieces by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists detailing the abusive use of solitary and retaliation against those detained at immigration detention facilities including OCPC, including a gay man who seems to be particularly targeted by facility staff.
There are hundreds of others detained within OCPC who suffer the daily abuse and medical neglect that is rampant and well-documented at the facility. We demand action from our congressional representatives to hold OCPC, M&TC, and ICE accountable for their negligence, civil rights violations, and for violating basic human rights. Joa’s death should be yet another wake-up call to Congress and the public that those held in immigration detention facilities are not safe. The following steps must be taken immediately:
- Immediately release all vulnerable populations held at OCPC, including gay and transgender individuals and those with medical conditions, on humanitarian parole
- Open a congressional investigation into ICE and M&TC
- Defund immigration detention by cutting funds to DHS and ensuring funds cannot be diverted from other areas of government to that agency
- Amend current policies that require ICE to report cases of hospitalization to next of kin or death to Congress and the public to require that cases of hospitalization also be reported to Congress and the public, including cases in which detained individuals are released from ICE custody following hospitalization.