Immigrant groups demand investigation of suicide at prison run by Trump donor

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GEO Group, which gave to Donald Trump in the 2016 election and profited off his immigration policies, is under fire again following the death of a 74-year-old man at one of its detention facilities.

Advocacy groups are demanding justice for a 74-year-old immigrant man who died by suicide last May while in custody at a California Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility — one that's owned by a private prison company with ties to Donald Trump.

Choung Woohn Ahn, a South Korean immigrant, was found dead in the shower at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, California, on May 17, 2020.

The center is owned by the GEO Group, one of the nation's largest private prison companies, which donated heavily to Trump in 2016 and later profited off his administration's immigration policies.

Despite records showing Ahn was at high risk of suicide, detention authorities had chosen to place him in isolation without continuous monitoring required in such cases.

On Thursday, Disability Rights California, Centro Legal de la Raza, and the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security, addressed to the DHS inspector general and Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, calling for an investigation into ICE and GEO Group's "violations of the civil, constitutional, and disability rights of Mr. Ahn." The groups sent a separate request to the California attorney general to investigate Anh's death.

"What we do know is that Mr. Ahn never should have been detained by ICE, and never should have been put in solitary. But 10 months later, Mr. Ahn's death overall still raises more questions than answers," said Trevor Kosmo, a staff attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, said in an email Monday.

He added separately, "Everyone should want — and demand — accountability from their government. There has been none at the federal level. That's why we're calling on the state of California and the Attorney General's Office to investigate Mr. Ahn's death; use its legal authority to inspect ICE facilities to ensure the health and safety of Californians; and hold contractors liable for violations of their federal contract that result in civil and criminal liability."

The California attorney general's office said in an email statement on Friday that it was "unable to comment on, even to confirm or deny, a potential or ongoing investigation" in order to "protect its integrity."

In a separate email statement on Friday, an ICE spokesperson told the American Independent Foundation that they could not comment on the incident "due to pending litigation," but added that their "lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations."

Neither DHS nor the GEO Group had responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Anh, who came to the United States as a lawful permanent resident in 1988, had a history of suicide attempts and an unspecified depressive order diagnosis. He was also suffering from hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and heart-related issues, according to the complaint, and his lawyers had attempted to have him removed from detention due to the added threat from the coronavirus pandemic.

ICE denied attorneys' pleas for Anh to be released on bond, the Associated Press noted, including a humanitarian parole request.

The groups' petition on Thursday expressed "grave concern that ICE and GEO repeatedly violated federal disability law, the U.S. Constitution, and binding detention standards throughout Mr. Ahn’s time at Mesa Verde and ultimately causing his death," and noted that the center had failed to provide him "with adequate and timely medical care and mental health treatment."

"ICE and GEO both have blood on their hands," Kosmo told the Desert Sun in August. "Mr. Ahn's death was preventable. Congress should know that when making their funding decisions, about whether and how much to fund these facilities ... because members of our community are dying."

Ahn's death is just one instance of a long pattern of alleged abuse recorded at ICE facilities owned and operated by the GEO Group.

In 2017, following three deaths at the GEO Group-owned Adelanto Detention Center in California, Javier Hernandez, director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, dubbed it "the deadliest detention center of 2017."

"Long before this egregious distinction, Adelanto has been known as a facility where abuse and mismanagement persist," he said, according to a press release from Detention Watch Network, a national grassroots coalition working to abolish immigration detention, with which Hernandez's group is involved.

That year, detainees in that same facility filed a lawsuit alleging "systematic and unlawful wage theft" when forced to work for $1 per day to maintain the facility, which boosted GEO's profits.

Detention Watch Network called the ties between private prisons and ICE "a toxic relationship" at the time.

"At every turn, there are clear [financial] incentives to detain more people while always reducing per-person costs—a combination that has helped create a sprawling and unaccountable system of mass detention," it wrote. "Worse, it views immigrants primarily as sources of income rather than as human beings, paving the way for other abuses."

GEO Group has been similarly criticized for a spate of deaths at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, where at least 12 detainees died between 2002 and 2008.

The private prison company has also found itself under fire for holding immigrants in inhumane conditions. Among other things, many of its facilities have have been accused of misconduct or mismanagement, and abusing detainees through medical neglect, some of whom later died.

GEO Group has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying its facilities are safe, clean, and well-managed.

The company began facing more intense scrutiny during the Trump era, during which it was criticized for holding immigrant families forcibly separated under the so-called "zero-tolerance" policy, which resulted in thousands of children being split from their parents at the U.S. southern border. Activists and immigration experts noted that GEO Group was profiting heavily off the policy, but company officials brushed off that criticism by claiming it "does not take a position on nor have we ever advocated for or against immigration enforcement or detention policies."

Investigative journalism site Sludge notably reported in 2019 that GEO Group had made at least $2.2 billion off of ICE contracts since 2010.

Aware of the troubling issues surrounding for-profit operators like GEO Group, former President Barack Obama in August 2016 announced a policy to phase out federal government contracts with private prison companies. His then-attorney general Sally Yates issued a memo that said the facilities do not "save substantially on costs," and cited an Office of Inspector General report that found "they do not maintain the same level of safety and security" compared to those of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In response, those companies, including GEO Group, fought back hard — by supporting Trump.

The Campaign Legal Center noted that the GEO Group contributed $100,000 to the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now in August 2016 and an additional $125,000 one week before the 2016 election.

After Trump's win, GEO gave $250,000 to the Trump Inaugural Committee.

GEO Group saw its return on investment almost immediately.

Shortly after Trump took office, in a Feb. 23, 2017 memo, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama administration policy phasing out private prisons, and conversely expanded the government's use of them.

Two months after, the Trump administration awarded GEO Group with a 10-year, $110 million federal contract to construct and operate a Texas facility for undocumented ICE detainees, according to Prison Legal News. The Campaign Legal Center noted that "GEO expect[ed] $44 million a year in revenue from the facility."

That year, the company moved its annual conference to the Trump National Doral golf resort in Miami.

Since 2017, GEO Group has held contracts worth a total of $471 million, making the company ICE's largest vendor, Prison Legal News reported in April 2020.

The ties between GEO and Trump underscore what the Campaign Legal Center called a "pay-to-play scheme" between private, for-profit prison companies and the federal government.

"When profit is sort of the point in forming a company, particularly, they should not be in the business, because ... if that's their bottom line, then the humane care of the detainees in their custody is a competing interest, and I think the profit interest is going to overcome whatever concern they may have for the well-being of their detainees," Pamila Lew, senior attorney at Disability Rights California, said in a phone interview.

Ahn was a victim of that for-profit incentive.

"He represents one of hundreds of detainees," Lew said. "...There's just been so many complaints [...] and lawsuits lodged against these companies that they shouldn't be playing a role in our immigration system."

Kosmo, the immigrants' rights staff attorney at Centro Legal De La Raza, echoed that sentiment.

Corporations like GEO Group, he said in an email Monday, "profit off human suffering, and they're doing everything they can to keep people locked up, to keep their perverse business model afloat."

"Their concern is their share prices, not human lives," he added. "In Mr. Ahn's case, they had no incentive to cut into their profits by providing Mr. Ahn adequate medical care and mental health treatment. And they directly profited — at taxpayers' expense — from detaining Mr. Ahn and watching him deteriorate in solitary confinement during his final days."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.