When Dahir went on suicide watch in 2021 at Sherburne County Jail, he was placed for three days in a segregated room for 23 hours a day, according to a civil rights complaint. He got one hour to shower and make phone calls. He had no radio, no television, no books.
At times, the complaint says, he was restrained in a cold room wearing only a kevlar suit, a smock that prevents the wearer from using their clothing to hurt themself. He eventually started therapy, but a mental health provider at the jail called him names, making Dahir want to quit therapy altogether.
“As a result, [Dahir’s] mental health condition deteriorated significantly—to the point of suicidal ideation,” said the civil rights and civil liberties complaint filed by Dahir, a Somali refugee detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Dahir was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, and PTSD in April 2021. He also experienced hallucinations, paranoia, and other symptoms of psychosis.
ICE contracts with many county jails in Minnesota and other states to hold its detainees. It communicates and oversees standards that the jails must comply with, including mental health care. Dahir filed a complaint in March alleging that ICE and two Minnesota county jails violated his civil rights as a person suffering severe mental illness. The complaint says Sherburne County Jail and Kandiyohi County Jail, where he was later transferred, violated the Rehabilitation Act, a federal civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or services administered by federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE.
The complaint entirely redacts Dahir’s name. His attorneys discussed his case on condition that only his middle name be used, for fear that he would be deported in retaliation.
Dahir’s complaint asks that he not be detained again. He also is seeking an investigation into the county jails and a Department of Homeland Security review of the jails’ ICE contracts.
While the team of immigration attorneys representing Dahir through the National Immigrant Justice Center were able to coordinate Dahir’s release to a rehabilitation program in February, they say Dahir isn’t the only one struggling to receive mental health care under ICE detention.
“Unfortunately, it is quite a tragic pattern that we see increasingly as detention numbers are also going up,” said Jesse Franzblau of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The more that ICE uses space in county jails across the country, the more we see this type of systemic abuse occur.”
As of September, more than 35,000 people were detained by ICE in the United States. In Minnesota, Kandiyohi County Jail in Willmar houses 87 detainees and Freeborn County Jail in Albert Lea houses 28 detainees. Sherburne County Jail in Elk River has only two detainees.
The average stay nationally is about 37 days, but at Minnesota ICE facilities, the average skews longer; 196 days at Sherburne County Jail, 47 days at Kandiyohi County Jail, 38 days at Freeborn County Jail.
ICE reported in September that 184 detainees nationally have a medical or mental health condition that makes them vulnerable. Those detainees spent an average of nearly a dozen consecutive days in segregation, and about 18 days cumulatively.
A pattern of medical neglect
Dahir, 31, spent the first few years of his life in a refugee camp in Kenya and has lived in the U.S. as a refugee for 24 years. His mental illness went untreated, and his symptoms worsened as he got older.
Dahir’s attorneys said he struggled with homelessness and substance addiction. He was picked up by police in Olmsted County for getting into an altercation while intoxicated. The arrest put him in danger of deportation, and he was detained for nearly two years while he appealed his case.
Dahir was detained by ICE at Sherburne County Jail from January 2021 to May 2022, then he was transferred to Kandiyohi County Jail. Multiple organizations stepped in to help Dahir navigate his appeal until he was released in February 2023.
“For procedurally complex cases, it is not unusual for an individual to be held in ICE detention for years at a time,” said Dahir’s current attorney Kerry McGuire, with the Immigrant Law Center. “We wish it weren’t, but Dahir’s situation is not unique.”
“The pattern of medical neglect he experienced at two ICE detention facilities, along with the rampant ongoing violations, demonstrate that ICE cannot safely house people like [Dahir],” the complaint says.
When he was transferred to Kandiyohi County Jail, Dahir was immediately placed on suicide watch, the complaint says. At the time, he saw a therapist who was able to help him manage his symptoms. For example, if he was feeling overstimulated, he found comfort in isolating himself or avoiding watching the news. He was also prescribed Clonidine, Remeron, and a high dose of Prozac. But when his therapist left Kandiyohi in September, Dahir had trouble receiving consistent care.
Dahir’s complaint says that under ICE’s National Detention Standards, people in detention at an ICE facility must have access to “appropriate medical, dental, and mental health care,
including emergency services.” His complaint alleges that officers at county jails in Sherburne and Kandiyohi violated these standards.
The complaint also says that segregation should only be used as a last resort.
“ICE and its contractors punished [Dahir] for his mental illnesses by placing him in segregation and denying him access to medication,” the complaint says. “ICE and its contractors exacerbated [Dahir’s] symptoms, causing more paranoia, anxiety, and depression, rather than accommodating it.”
While the complaint alleges that ICE and its contractors failed to provide mental health services for Dahir, who is vulnerable both in mental health and immigration status, it’s unclear who is primarily responsible.
John Bruning, an attorney for the Advocates for Human Rights, works closely with immigrant clients who have experienced traumatic experiences.
“You have a lot of individuals who have been through unimaginable trauma in their lives, like being born in war zones, experiencing persecution, experiencing torture, growing up in refugee camps, adjusting to life in the United States, all of that,” Bruning said. “Detention is the worst possible thing you can do for someone’s mental health. No matter how it’s treated, it’s always going to exacerbate mental health problems.”
Bruning added that mental illness is often a contributing factor to immigrants ending up in detention due to difficulties adjusting to life in the United States, fitting in, keeping a job, getting an education, and finding a good group of friends.
According to a spokesperson for ICE, detention facilities housing ICE detainees “are evaluated regularly under ICE’s detention standards, which have requirements for detainee medical and mental health and safety, legal access, visitation requirements and more.”
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is firmly committed to the health, safety, and welfare of all those in its custody,” the spokesperson told Sahan Journal in an email. “ICE’s national detention standards and other ICE policies require facilities to provide comprehensive medical and mental health care from the moment noncitizens arrive at a facility and throughout their time in ICE custody.”
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 of arrival. Facilities are also required to provide access to medical appointments and 24-hour emergency care.
According to an email statement from Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson, ICE provides the jail with a copy of the standards. ICE also regularly inspects the jail to ensure compliance. Kandiyohi County Jail received a superior rating from ICE in 2022, the email said.
The Sherburne County Sheriff did not respond to requests for comment.
Attorneys working with Dahir say that county jails are not meeting standards that ICE has set, which they also call inadequate.
“I think these county jails and facilities across the country are not equipped to provide the type of medical and mental health services that people need, particularly people dealing with past trauma,” Franzblau said.
Mary Georgevich, the senior litigation attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center said Dahir is doing much better since he was released on bond in February.
“He’s been released from ICE custody and is getting mental health treatment. So he’s doing much, much better,” Georgevich said. She said Dahir is currently in a mental health facility in Minnesota, but he still risks deportation if he’s detained again.