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What's Killing Detainees at U.S. ICE Facilities?
  • Cara Murez
  • Posted January 26, 2021

What's Killing Detainees at U.S. ICE Facilities?

Thirty-five detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities have died since April 2018, often because of preventable causes, such as COVID-19, flu and suicide, according to a new study.

One of them was a Mexican citizen who had first entered the United States two decades ago. He died after a month in custody.

Medical records indicated the 54-year-old man appeared normal "except a heart rate of 103 and pulse oximetry [blood oxygen] reading of 83%."

A normal blood oxygen level is between 95% and 100%. Yet no mention was made of measures such as supplementary oxygen or hospitalization, according to University of Southern California (USC) researchers.

His case, and others like it, indicate the ICE facilities need better infection control and psychiatric care, the study authors noted.

The research team examined three years of congressionally mandated reports on deaths in ICE custody. They found a sevenfold increase in deaths even as the average daily population in the detention facilities decreased by nearly one-third between 2019 and 2020.

"Potentially preventable causes of death -- including COVID-19 infection, influenza and suicide -- are responsible for at least half of recent deaths," said researcher Sophie Terp, an assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine at the USC Keck School of Medicine, in Los Angeles.

The death rate is 10.8 per 100,000 detainees -- the highest since ICE implemented national detention standards in 2008, the researchers said. The average age of death is 47, which is much lower than the life expectancy of foreign-born individuals in the United States.

"This is concerning, particularly considering that foreign-born individuals in the United States have a 2.4-year advantage in life-expectancy relative to United States-born population," Terp and her colleagues wrote in the report published online recently in the journal AIMS Public Health.

The researchers found that nine people died by suicide and 26 from medical causes. Eight of those deaths were related to COVID-19.

Most of the COVID-19-related deaths occurred among individuals whose age or chronic medical conditions put them at high risk.

"Safety measures such as masks, hand hygiene and social distancing can be difficult to implement in often-crowded detention environments," Terp said in a university news release.

"Although the COVID vaccine was not yet available during the study period, immunization should be prioritized for incarcerated populations," she added.

Most of the people who died were detained for more than a month before their death, suggesting conditions in detention, rather than events prior to detention, contributed to premature death, the researchers said.

The findings lend support to civil liberties organizations' longstanding concerns that substandard medical care in ICE facilities has contributed to preventable deaths, according to the study authors.

More information

The American Medical Association has more on conditions at ICE facilities along the U.S. border.

SOURCE: University of Southern California, news release, Jan. 21, 2021

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