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ICE detainee alleges inadequate mental health treatment while held in Minnesota jails

Sunday November 19, 2023
By Hibah Ansari

The detainee, a Somali refugee who suffers from mental illness, says he was held by ICE for two years in Sherburne and Kandiyohi counties without receiving necessary treatment.  

In a civil rights complaint, a Somali man alleged that inadequate mental health care at two Minnesota ICE detention facilities exacerbated his symptoms. He was released from ICE custody in February and is currently seeking care at a rehabilitation center, but still risks deportation. Credit: Illustration by Kim Jackson | Sahan Journal

When a Somali refugee went on suicide watch in 2021 at the Sherburne County jail in Elk River, he was placed in isolation for three days, 23 hours a day, with one hour to shower and make phone calls, and without a radio, TV or books.

That's according to a civil rights complaint filed by the refugee, called Dahir, against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Sherburne and Kandiyohi counties. He's alleging he was detained in those county's jails, which serve as ICE facilities, for two years without getting adequate treatment for severe mental illness.

Dahir is asking not to be detained again, and is seeking an investigation into the county jails and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security review of the jails' ICE contracts.

His complaint alleges that the jails violated the Rehabilitation Act, a federal statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or services administered by federal agencies like Homeland Security, which includes ICE.

"As a result, [Dahir's] mental health condition deteriorated significantly," to the point that he began thinking about suicide, according to the complaint. Dahir's name is entirely redacted from the complaint, and his attorneys discussed the case on the condition that only his middle name be used for fear of deportation.

Dahir, 31, spent the first few years of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya and has lived in the United States as a refugee for 24 years. His mental illness went untreated, and his attorneys say he has struggled with homelessness and substance addiction.

He was picked up by police in Olmsted County for getting into an altercation while drunk. The arrest put him in danger of deportation, leading to his detention for nearly two years while he appealed his case.

Dahir was held by ICE at the Sherburne County jail from January 2021 to May 2022, when he was transferred to the Kandiyohi County jail in Willmar. While in Sherburne County, he was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. He also experienced hallucinations, paranoia and other symptoms of psychosis.

A team of attorneys from the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center coordinated his release on bond to a rehabilitation program in February. He filed the complaint in March.

"For procedurally complex cases, it is not unusual for an individual to be held in ICE detention for years at a time," said Kerry McGuire, Dahir's attorney. "We wish it weren't, but Dahir's situation is not unique."

ICE contracts with many county jails in Minnesota and other states to hold detainees. It communicates and oversees standards that the jails must comply with, including mental health care.

"The more that ICE uses space in county jails across the country, the more we see this type of systemic abuse occur," said Jesse Franzblau of the National Immigrant Justice Center.

Dahir's complaint alleges that officers at the Sherburne and Kandiyohi county jails violated ICE's National Detention Standards, which say detainees must have access to "appropriate medical, dental, and mental health care, including emergency services."

The complaint also says that segregation should be used only as a last resort. ICE and its contractors punished Dahir by isolating him and denying him medication, "causing more paranoia, anxiety, and depression, rather than accommodating it."

According to an ICE spokesperson, detention facilities are regularly checked to ensure they're meeting its standards, including "comprehensive medical and mental health care." Detained noncitizens receive a health screening within 12 hours of arrival at a detention facility, and a complete health assessment within the first two weeks. Facilities must provide access to medical appointments and 24-hour emergency care.

In a statement, Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson said ICE provides the jail with a copy of its standards and regularly conducts inspections to ensure compliance. He said the jail received a superior rating from ICE in 2022. Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott didn't respond to requests for comment.

As of September, more than 35,000 people were detained by ICE in the United States. Currently in Minnesota, the Kandiyohi County jail houses 87 detainees and the Freeborn County jail in Albert Lea, 28 detainees; the Sherburne County jail has two detainees.

While the average ICE detention stay nationally is about 37 days, the average time is longer in Sherburne County, with 196 days, and Kandiyohi County, 47 days.

"Detention is the worst possible thing you can do for someone's mental health," said John Bruning, an attorney for the Advocates for Human Rights who works with immigrants who have experienced trauma. "No matter how it's treated, it's always going to exacerbate mental health problems."

Mary Georgevich, a senior litigation attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said Dahir is in a mental health facility in Minnesota and risks deportation if he's detained again.

However, she said, "He's doing much, much better."


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