On May 18, Roylan Hernández Díaz and his wife, Yarelis Gutierrez, legally entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, to apply for asylum after fleeing Cuba. Two weeks later, after she’d been released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Gutierrez expressed her joy and optimism on a Facebook post accompanying a photo of her on a plane. “My first flight in the United States,” wrote Gutierrez, who now lives in Florida. “Thank you, heavenly father—to all my brothers in Christ and friends who were part of this with their prayers.”
But when couples come to the border seeking asylum, ICE often keeps the man in detention. That’s what happened to Hernández, who was eventually sent to the Richwood Correctional Center, a jail in rural Louisiana with a well-documented history of abuse. When the couple spoke for the last time on October 9, Hernández had just gotten bad news. The next court date in his asylum case wouldn’t be until late January, nearly four months away. He sounded hopeless and said he couldn’t endure more detention. Hernández knew he was at a for-profit jail and figured he wouldn’t get out as long as someone was making money off of him.
On Tuesday, Hernández, 43, was found unresponsive in his cell. Medical officials pronounced him dead soon after. His death, which is still under investigation, appeared to be a suicide by hanging.
Several Richwood detainees told me that Hernández went on a hunger strike after his January court date was set. They say he was then sent to one of the solitary confinement cells that Spanish-speaking detainees call “punishment rooms” and “wells.” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox confirmed that Hernández was placed in “administrative segregation for observation and monitoring due to a declared hunger strike” on October 10 and that he was alone in his cell. On Wednesday afternoon, ICE released a statement saying that Hernández appeared to have died by “self-inflicted strangulation.”
Hernández’s death is the first to occur as part of ICE’s rapid shift toward detaining asylum seekers at for-profit jails in Louisiana and Mississippi. This year, ICE has started using eight new jails and prisons in those states as part of its rapid expansion of its detention capacity. Six of them in Louisiana, including Richwood, are run by LaSalle Corrections and were built to hold criminals, a population that is in shorter supply as a result of the state’s criminal justice reforms. The other two are operated by the private prison giants GEO Group and CoreCivic. ICE is now keeping roughly 8,000 people in Louisiana, up from about 1,600 on an average day in 2016. Congress has directed ICE to detain fewer people, but the Department of Homeland Security has gotten around legislators by transferring money to ICE from other accounts.
Many of the new ICE facilities were once notorious for mistreating their criminal populations. Complaints by inmates at the CoreCivic prison in Mississippi about inadequate medical care, staff mistreatment, and rotten food contributed to a 2012 riot that left one guard dead and 20 people injured. A 2016 investigation by the Nation documented three cases where immigrants serving criminal sentences at the prison died following poor medical treatment. At Richwood, two inmates died in 2015 as a result of what lawsuits allege was severe neglect and abuse. In 2016, Richwood guards pepper-sprayed handcuffed detainees in the face then engaged in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the assault.
Mother Jones first learned of Hernández’s death on Tuesday afternoon from a woman with a brother detained at Richwood who had told her of the death. Later on Tuesday, another Richwood detainee and a lawyer representing migrants at Richwood told me the same thing. The second detainee was a Venezuelan who had heard about the death from a jail employee he trusts. The employee had told him that Hernández hanged himself with his clothes and a bag used to store personal belongings. The Venezuelan said he also saw a guard open a small window that looked into Hernández’s cell. After apparently seeing Hernández’s body, the detainee heard the guard say, “What the fuck?” Another employee looked like he was going to vomit, the Venezuelan added.
About 90 minutes after he was pronounced dead, an ICE official called Gutierrez to tell her that her husband had died in the agency’s custody. She pressed for more details, but the official didn’t provide any. Gutierrez told me on Wednesday that she had heard people were saying her husband had committed suicide. Hernández had never mentioned self-harm, and she didn’t believe the reports. Gutierrez described her husband as a tranquil man of few words who fought for what he believed in. She said he’d left Cuba after repeatedly clashing with the government.
“Today, it was my husband, but how many have there been before?” Gutierrez asked in Spanish, “How many more will there be if we don’t get this under control?”
She continued, “Sadly, we can’t understand what’s going on in this country that the whole world comes to take refuge in. Look at what’s happening today. You just don’t know if they’re getting asylum or dying.”
Hernández was the first asylum seeker to lose his life at Richwood, but several inmates died there previously as a result of what lawsuits describe as severe mistreatment. In October 2015, Vernon White and Erie Moore were placed together in an isolation cell following erratic behavior and fighting, according to lawsuits later brought on their behalf. They fought the next morning, but prison officials still kept them detained together. That afternoon, White began banging on the door of the cell before Moore attacked him. After about 10 minutes of struggle, White’s body disappeared from surveillance footage. Seventeen minutes later, a guard delivered food to the cell without noticing that Moore had already killed or incapacitated White. Moore then ate from both meals without disruption.
Finally, 46 minutes after the attack, guards entered the cell to remove what appeared to be White’s dead body. Christopher Loring and other guards then pepper-sprayed and severely beat Moore. Investigators from the local sheriff’s office arrived at the jail to find Moore lying on his back, unresponsive. He was airlifted to a hospital and died there a month later. (The lawsuit filed on White’s behalf was settled in July 2018 for an undisclosed sum; Moore’s case is still in court.)
A year later, Loring and four other guards participated in an assault and cover-up that led to criminal convictions. In March 2018, the Justice Department charged the Richwood guards with pepper-spraying inmates “while the inmates were kneeling on the floor, in an area of the jail with no surveillance cameras, and while the inmates were handcuffed, compliant, and not posing a physical threat to anyone.” The guards then conspired to blame an inmate for the incident by submitting false reports. Loring later lied to the FBI. He pleaded guilty in March, shortly before asylum seekers started arriving at Richwood.
In Richwood, a majority-black town of about 3,300 in northern Louisiana, the shift to holding immigrants was controversial. “We do not need these strange prisoners coming to the town,” a resident said at the time. “We would be afraid to try to come home, our children playing.” The mayor defended the decision, noting on a local podcast that ICE was set to pay the jail more than twice as much as the state of Louisiana. A portion of those funds would go to the town government. “You’re looking at somewhere around $470,000 a year for us to do just about nothing,” the mayor said.
After facing protests at its detention centers in progressive states like California, ICE has been happy to shift immigrants to cheaper jails in Louisiana that are far from lawyers and close to conservative judges. The new LaSalle jails are all in the Western District of Louisiana, where President Donald Trump has appointed five of the six federal judges.
Hernández repeatedly asked to be released on parole, but ICE denied each request. An internal government report obtained by BuzzFeed News shows that his last request was denied on October 8, the day before his court hearing. According to ICE’s own parole policy, the agency should probably have released him, but it had effectively ended parole in the Deep South. In 2016, the ICE field office that covers Louisiana approved 75 percent of parole requests. By 2019, that figure had dropped to zero. In September, a federal judge ordered ICE to return to following its parole policy, which requires it to release asylum seekers who don’t pose a flight risk or a threat to the community. Attorneys with clients in Louisiana have seen little or no change since the judge’s decision. (Cubans are particularly unlikely to be flight risks because they become eligible for green cards under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act one year after they’re released.)
Hernández had often told his wife that his goal was to make it home. “For him, the United States was home,” she explained. “His hope. His future, for his family, for him.” He hoped to escape Cuba. Instead, she said the opposite had happened as “his life in the United States became hell.”
Sadly, Hernández’s story is not unique. Within 24 hours of his apparent suicide, another detainee at Richwood attempted to take his life.
On Tuesday afternoon, shortly after Hernández died, I spoke with Manuel, a Honduran asylum seeker who has been detained at Richwood for six months. I asked how he was doing. “Pretty bad, to be honest,” he said. “Being in a punishment cell isn’t easy. Spending more than 40 days without seeing the light of the sun. It’s been torture for me. Torture by ICE.” The 27-year-old, who is gay, said he’d been sent to solitary confinement after telling a judge he had been hit by a fellow inmate—an incident that occurred after the inmate called him a homophobic slur. He was brought to what he described as a blood-stained cell. After about a month there, he began to hear voices. He thought of killing himself with a knife, but couldn’t get one.
He was kept in that solitary cell for more than 40 days, then transferred to another windowless isolation cell, this time with a cellmate, where he spent the next two months. He was allowed outside for an hour a day and could bathe three times per week. Manuel considered committing suicide by jumping off the top level of his bunk bed head first, but he feared it wouldn’t kill him. Homophobia and racism on the part of ICE officials made him feel “that his life was worth nothing,” he said with obvious pain.
An investigation by the Project on Government Oversight showed that about 40 percent of people placed in solitary confinement at ICE detention centers have mental illnesses. The Atlantic reported in September that the Trump administration has been far more likely to send people to solitary because of “suicide risk” or as “protective custody for LGBT people.” (Cox did not respond to questions about Manuel.)
Manuel’s first video call with a psychologist lasted no more than five minutes, he said. The second lasted maybe 20. The psychologist prescribed sleeping pills to deal with the voices and nightmares, and Prozac for his sadness. She also wrote a letter to ICE saying that he was potentially suicidal, he said. Before we hung up, I asked if he could call again the next day. “Sure, no problem,” he replied.
On Wednesday, I got a call, but it wasn’t from Manuel. Another detainee, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said Manuel had hanged himself around 6:30 that morning. A guard found him unconscious, but he survived the suicide attempt, the detainee said. He’d been taken to the hospital and brought back to the jail.
The detainee and I had spoken the day before. He didn’t know about Hernández’s death at the time but didn’t doubt that months of detention and parole denials could drive someone to take his own life. “If someone killed himself, that’s why,” he said. “Because of that, I’ve seen many shattered people crying on the floor because they can’t take it. Because of that, I’ve seen people ask to self-deport, even though they’ll be killed when they get back to their countries.”