At the May 28 memorial service in San Francisco for a 74-year-old man who died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, Bay Area community members and faith leaders spoke out against unsafe conditions immigrants face in for-profit ICE facilities.
Choung Woong Ahn, a medically vulnerable senior, died at Mesa Verde Detention Facility on May 17. Mesa Verde is a private facility located in Bakersfield, owned and operated by the for-profit corporation GEO Group (GEO), which manages prisons and other detention facilities around the world.
Ahn’s death and that of Carlos Escobar Mejia, 57, earlier in May sparked outcries from immigrant advocates and immigration detainees themselves. Mejia died of COVID-19 at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego, also operated by GEO.
Although Ahn served his full sentence at a state prison and earned his release, he was held at Mesa Verde since February while ICE repeatedly denied his release. Ahn’s preliminary cause of death was suicide, but the case is still under investigation.
“ICE needlessly kept Mr. Ahn caged, and GEO group, the company contracted to run the facility, prioritized profits over basic medical care,” Priya Patel of Centro Legal de la Raza said at Ahn’s service in front of the ICE field office in San Francisco.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other medical experts recommend physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is highly contagious. However, distancing is nearly impossible in detention centers and prisons across the country.
Of 2,016 confirmed cases, ICE has reported two deaths from COVID-19: Mejia and Santiago Baten-Oxlag, 34, in a Georgia facility. ICE released a few hundred detainees by the end of May due to a court order, but still reported 929 active cases of COVID-19 in their facilities as of June 14. They claim to have tested only about 20 percent of their nearly 25,000 immigration detainees nationwide.
The CDC also said older adults and people with serious underlying medical conditions “might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.” Ahn suffered from diabetes, hypertension and heart and respiratory conditions, all of which may have put him at heightened risk while in confinement.
“Settings of detention are notorious for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and the rapid spread of disease. ICE should be held accountable for his untimely death,” Rev. Dr. Allison Tanner of Lakeshore Ave. Baptist Church said at the service. “[Ahn’s] death was tragic and completely unnecessary.”
Community advocates sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra, calling for an independent investigation of Ahn’s death. “We do not need the agency which created the circumstances for this death to conduct an investigation. The reality is clear for everyone to see: ICE is acting as the judge, jury and executioner in these cases,” the letter said.
A single bouquet of flowers sat atop a plywood casket as community members spoke and religious leaders performed memorial rites for Ahn on the sidewalk. Attendees held posters with hearts encircling names of their family members being held by ICE, pleading for their urgent release.
According to the Detention Watch Network (DWN), detainees in various ICE facilities have held over 20 confirmed hunger strikes since March, protesting their imprisonment during the global pandemic. Other detainees have stopped working in protest, or filmed videos from inside to describe the conditions they face.
“Being one of the few who was exempt from the hunger strike, Mr. Ahn still wanted to participate and refused to go to ‘chow’,” Charles Robert Joseph, an ex-detainee who was friendly with Ahn at Mesa Verde, recalled at Ahn’s memorial.
On the day of Ahn’s service, the DWN held a National Day of Action in solidarity with hunger-striking detainees. Activists organized car caravans, webinar rallies and a social media campaign as part of the Free Them All movement pushing for the release of immigrants from all detention centers in the face of COVID-19.
“We’ve already witnessed the deadly toll of this virus inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, with three deaths reported and thousands of infections confirmed since March,” the DWN’s Action Guide said.
According to their website, ICE employees “have access to the most current CDC and [Department of Health and Safety] guidance,” and their Occupational Safety and Health unit “regularly provides guidance.”
However, detainees’ accounts indicate this guidance is not always heeded.
Rev. Deborah Lee, executive director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, said ICE’s refusal to release Ahn was “abhorrent at a time when the president’s cronies like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen are being granted release. There are thousands more whose lives are at risk. We pray for swift and generous action.”
“The state of California shares in responsibility,” Patel continued. “They continue to neglect their authority to investigate and hold private detention operators accountable for what is taking place in these for-profit prisons. As we mourn Mr. Ahn’s death, we demand that this never happen again.”