The death of asylum-seeker Roylan Hernandez Diaz in a Louisiana prison was a preventable tragedy and an urgent reminder of the Trump administration’s systemic failure to protect the health and well-being of the people in its custody.

With the growing threat of COVID-19 and the well-documented lack of adequate medical care in these detention facilities, it is vital that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement immediately release all asylum-seekers on humanitarian parole. Refugees have no business being behind bars in the first place, and their continued detention threatens not only their health – but the health and safety of the community at large.

Hernandez’s death exposed many ugly truths about immigrant detention, which now have even more dire implications with COVID-19 threatening to sweep through detention facilities. A recent Associated Press investigation found neglect by his jailers, including the fact that, for more than an hour after Hernandez hanged himself in solitary confinement, no one bothered to check on him in his cell, despite policy that mandates more frequent checks on such detainees.

Hernandez had been on hunger strike to protest abuse he endured in detention. Apparently, because he went on strike, he was placed in solitary confinement, which prison officials use to punish people for protesting or other perceived misbehavior. He was also suffering from a painful intestinal disorder, one associated with anxiety and depression.

Six days after he was placed in solitary confinement, Hernandez tied a bed sheet to a post and killed himself. The AP’s investigation uncovered video showing guards walking past Hernandez’s cell door without looking inside. The prison’s failures to place him in a cell with a video camera, to consistently monitor him, to give him adequate care, and to keep him in general population also point to a shocking negligence.

“I think they let him die,” his fiancée, Yarelis Gutierrez Barrios, told a reporter.

Unfortunately, Hernandez’s death is not unusual. Just recently, a 22-year-old woman, Maria Celeste Ochoa Yoc de Ramirez, became the eighth person to die in ICE custody since October. Increasingly, death is the direct outcome of a cruel immigration policy that ignores human rights and treats asylum-seekers like criminals.

In other words, our policy is deadly.

Like Hernandez, Yoc de Ramirez, who fled Guatemala, had passed her “credible fear” screening. That means immigration officials determined both were eligible for asylum in the United States. Under ICE regulations, people who qualify for asylum may also be eligible for release from prison while they pursue their asylum claims, which is known as “humanitarian parole.”

But under the current administration, parole is rarely granted, especially in the region controlled by the New Orleans Field Office of ICE.

After the ACLU of Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued, we obtained an injunction from a federal judge in September, requiring ICE to follow its own rules and give each asylum applicant an individualized review. Despite this ruling, parole approvals in Louisiana and the region remain notoriously rare.

These conditions breed desperation and hopelessness, and some asylum seekers have resorted to hunger strikes to protest their inhumane incarceration. Five South Asian men went on a hunger strike in October at the GEO Group-operated LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, Louisiana. Without adequate nutrition, they are even more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic that’s putting all our communities at risk.

These refugees came to the United States for protection and a better life. They believed we are a nation founded by and welcoming to immigrants. But when they arrived, they instead encountered hostility and found the opposite of freedom: prison.

I visited Richwood Correctional Center in November with a group of ACLU staff, about a month after Hernandez died there. Part of our site visit included a solitary confinement cell, about 12 by 8 feet large, with cinderblock walls and a steel door. I thought about the despair that comes with extreme confinement — prison suicides occur most often in isolation cells. Prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture that poses significant risks to vulnerable people, such as incarcerated persons.

Now that the Centers for Disease Control is urging all people, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, to avoid confined spaces, we cannot forget that thousands of people are languishing behind bars for no other reason than attempting to exercise their right to seek asylum. ICE must act immediately to release all asylum-seekers on humanitarian parole. The health of thousands of refugees ­– and the health of the broader community – depend on it.

Bruce Hamilton is Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Louisiana.

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