BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A 74-year-old man being held at the Mesa Verde detention facility died by suicide on Sunday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed today.
ICE said that South Korean man Choung Won Ahn — who had diabetes, hypertension and several heart-related issues — was found dead at around 9:52 p.m. Staff found Ahn unresponsive in his cell. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
The preliminary cause of death appears to be self-inflicted strangulation, ICE said. However, the case is still under investigation.
“ICE appreciates consideration while details are confirmed and next of kin and other notifications are made. Additional information will be provided as it is available,” the agency said.
ICE said Ahn was lawfully admitted as a permanent resident to the United States in 1988. On June 25, 2013, the Superior Court of California convicted Ahn for the offense of attempted murder with an enhancement for using a firearm and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
He entered ICE custody on Feb. 21 this year upon his release from Solano State Prison in Vacaville. and was taken to Mesa Verde.
In March, a group of attorneys made an urgent plea to ICE to release Ahn and others with serious pre-existing conditions because of the high probability they could contract COVID-19 while in detention.
“The risk of contracting COVID-19 in congregate settings is very high,” Jordan Wells, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, said in a March letter to ICE. “Despite an overwhelming consensus of public health experts…you have failed to release people like a 74-year-old man with chronic respiratory problems.”
The ACLU said Ahn’s pleas to be released were rejected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The U.S. District Court of the Northern California District of California denied Ahn’s request for bail on May 13, according to ICE.
“We are processing, and we are very emotionally upset,” said Ahn’s brother, Young Ahn. “We are angry. He did not deserve to be treated this way. He’s a human being, but to them, he’s just a number. There are other people in the same situation. It shouldn’t be happening again.”
Over the past month, a group of detainees with serious health problems have been released in response to a lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations of Northern California and Southern California, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firms of Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP.
“We are deeply saddened by Mr. Ahn’s death,” said Manohar Raju, the San Francisco Public Defender. “Mr. Ahn was particularly medically vulnerable and should have been released by ICE to his family, particularly given the grave risks of COVID in ICE detention centers. ICE must stop hiding behind their ‘business as usual’ approach to mass detention.”
Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, said suicides in ICE detention centers had been rising even before COVID-19 struck.
“This tragedy was senseless and preventable,” she said. “Make no mistake: ICE and the administration are responsible for this death. No one should be held in civil detention during a pandemic.”
ICE said that fatalities in its custody are very rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.