A Venezuelan man with an AIDS diagnosis has died while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after being held at a prison where activists have raised concerns about the treatment of inmates.
Pablo Sánchez-Gotopo, 40, died October 1 at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., according to an ICE press release. “The preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia, and COVID-19,” the release says.
Sánchez had been held at Adams County Detention Center, a private prison under contract to ICE, since May, when U.S. Customs and Border patrol took him into custody near Del Rio, Texas. The detention center is located on the outskirts of Natchez, Miss., and is operated by CoreCivic, a for-profit company. Use of private prisons expanded greatly under Donald Trump’s administration, but President Joe Biden has ordered that they be phased out.
He was tested twice for COVID with negative results, but after he began showing symptoms in late July, ICE transferred him to a hospital in Natchez. After his condition worsened, he was sent to the hospital in Flowood, a suburb of Jackson.
Politicians and activists have criticized ICE’s handling of migrants with HIV, with some calling for their release, and some trans women with the virus have died while in ICE custody. An HIV-positive detainee at the Adams County center told the Washington Blade last year that there were not sufficient measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID; there was no social distancing, for instance.
Elisabeth Grant-Gibson of Natchez, an advocate for ICE detainees and their families, told the Blade this week that there have been problems with health care at the Adams County facility. She visited the center and others nearby to check out conditions between November 2019 and March 2020, but then visitation was suspended due to the pandemic.
“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” she said. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.” She heard from several detainees by phone, and some said they were not permitted to seek treatment at the infirmary, while others reported that when they did go to the infirmary, “they were given virtually no treatment.”
ICE’s press release defended its record on detainees’ health care. “ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” the release says. “Fatalities in ICE custody, statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.”
Some 10,000 Venezuelans with HIV have left the country in recent years because antiretroviral drugs are largely unavailable there. Anti-LGBTQ+ persecution has also caused many to flee. A Venezuelan activist told the Blade Sánchez was gay, but the paper was unable to verify that. It’s unclear why he left the country.