Gourgen Mirimanian died under suspicious circumstances in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody five years ago. After a protracted legal battle with the federal agency to obtain records related to his death, the Armenian immigrant’s family now has more questions than answers.
Mirimanian was detained at the Prairieland Detention Center (PDC) in Alvarado, Texas, on Feb. 6, 2018. About two months later, on the morning of April 10, detention center staff found Mirimanian unresponsive, not breathing, and without a pulse—that is, according to the version of events made public by ICE and LaSalle Corrections, the private prison company that oversees PDC. According to Mirimanian’s public death report from ICE, he entered custody with hypertension and hyperlipidemia, both “minor conditions” that he took medication for. ICE’s death report also notes that Mirimanian complained of “burning, squeezing chest pain” the month before his death, but medical staff documented “no abnormal physical findings or acute distress” and a “minimally abnormal” electrocardiogram. The state of Texas documented the 54-year-old as dying of “natural” causes due to hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Mirimanian’s son, Mike Mirimanian, told Prism that his family lost their “rock” when his father died in ICE custody. He also said the government’s story about his father’s death didn’t “add up.” These suspicions led Mike to work with the migrant justice legal organization Al Otro Lado and the Detention Kills Transparency Initiative, both of which assist families impacted by the immigration system. The organizations filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on behalf of the family to obtain Mirimanian’s death records. ICE unlawfully withheld the documents for four years, resulting in a lawsuit that finally led to the release of some of the documents late last year.
“The records ICE disclosed as a result of our suit show ICE has a lot to hide,” said Mike. “The agency is still covering up the facts of my dad’s death and others.”.
Destruction of evidence and falsification of records
According to ICE’s final death review in Mirimanian’s case, shared with Prism by the Detention Kills Transparency Initiative, all relevant video surveillance footage related to LaSalle’s response to Mirimanian’s medical emergency “was not retained” by the private prison company. While LaSalle Corrections did retain limited surveillance footage from an onsite review, video from more crucial cameras and angles was not “retained or reviewable.”
ICE’s public death report for Mirimanian states that medical staff responded to a code blue for Mirimanian at 7:45 a.m. However, the surveillance footage LaSalle retained begins at 8:17 a.m., excluding everything that occurred before Mirimanian’s death. This is crucial footage that, according to Detention Kills, “may have shed light on ICE and LaSalle’s story of how [the] death happened.” However, there is also no way to know if any of ICE’s information regarding the details of Mirimanian’s death is reliable or accurate, given that LaSalle personnel were found to have falsified documents.
According to records obtained by Mirimanian’s family as part of their lawsuit, the guards responsible for ensuring that Mirimanian had access to 24/7 medical care were cited by PDC officials with “gross negligence and falsification of records” for falsifying logs that suggested they performed visual checks on Mirimanian in the hours leading up to his death. These checks are required by ICE standards and PDC’s contract with the federal immigration agency. One guard failed to complete a 4 a.m. headcount and missed including Mirimanian on a log listing detained people who did not go to breakfast.
A video reviewed by PDC’s security chief found that another guard provided false logs. PDC policy requires guards to make rounds every 30 minutes; however, when the next guard on duty assumed their post, they didn’t make their first round until 90 minutes later, skipping two required rounds that might have revealed that Mirimanian was in distress, required medical attention, or had already died. When Mirimanian missed breakfast on the day he died, no one reported him as missing.
LaSalle’s failure to retain video surveillance as part of Mirimanian’s death investigation not only violated ICE’s own detention standards, but also violated written requests made to LaSalle by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) and External Review and Analysis Unit (ERAU). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also requires in-custody death records to be maintained for at least 20 years. LaSalle destroyed surveillance footage related to Mirimanian’s death in less than 30 days.
“Without the truth, our family cannot mourn and grieve in peace,” said Mike.
Mirimanian’s case is not the first in which ICE and its contractors were found unlawfully destroying video evidence in violation of the Federal Records Act. The federal immigration agency has also made a practice of essentially ignoring FOIA requests regarding in-custody deaths until litigation is filed.
The family of transgender asylum seeker Roxsana Hernandez is still seeking answers about what happened to her in ICE custody days before she died in a New Mexico hospital in May 2018. CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the Cibola facility where Hernandez was detained, destroyed video records related to the 33-year-old’s case. A private autopsy found evidence that Hernandez was likely beaten while handcuffed prior to her death. ICE disputes this claim and alleges she died from complications associated with untreated HIV.
According to records shared with Prism, departments within ICE have repeatedly documented evidence destruction. For example, in two “calculated” use of force incidents against hunger strikers at Georgia’s Folkston ICE Processing Center, ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight— responsible for ensuring legal compliance by detention centers and contractors—found that audio-visual records captured on handheld video cameras were not “maintained.”
There appear to be no repercussions for the private prison companies that continue to contract with ICE for hundreds of millions of dollars despite repeatedly destroying evidence related to in-custody deaths. In 2019, when 43-year-old Cuban immigrant Roylan Hernandez Diaz died by suicide in ICE custody at the Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, LaSalle Corrections only provided ICE with a few hours of video preceding his death.
Hernandez Diaz was unlawfully placed in solitary confinement for six days because he engaged in a hunger strike, even after medical staff referred him for mental health care. Research shows solitary confinement is known to exacerbate mental health issues and cause “long-lasting harm.” Even after four years, the full video of Hernandez Diaz’s time in solitary has yet to be released. Hernandez Diaz’s death was preventable, but similar to Mirimanian’s case, guards employed by LaSalle failed to do rounds every 30 minutes, and hours passed before his body was found.
As a matter of practice, families and advocacy organizations are forced to sue ICE in order for the agency to respond to FOIA requests regarding in-custody deaths. In January 2021, Al Otro Lado filed a FOIA with the agency regarding the May 2020 in-custody death of 22-year-old Guatemalan refugee Maria Celeste Ochoa-Yoc De Ramirez. Ramirez, like Mirimanian, died at PDC. The request was largely ignored until a lawsuit was filed, resulting in the release of a small subset of the 10,600 documents related to the case. In July 2021, Tammy Owen filed a FOIA with ICE regarding the in-custody death of her husband, 39-year-old Benjamin Owen, who died in custody on January 25, 2020. The federal immigration agency once again ignored the request until litigation was filed.
According to Detention Kills, the organization has fought “tooth-and-nail” to obtain records from the government about more than 30 in-custody deaths, including Mirimanian’s.
There are still many questions that remain about Mirimanian’s death. The records the family obtained are missing nine days of Mirimanian’s commissary transactions made in the days preceding his death. Troubling toxicology results withheld from Mirimanian’s family for nearly five years may also contradict the agency’s assertion that Mirimanian’s death was largely the result of cardiovascular disease.
The toxicology results—originally omitted by ICE from its detainee death review and then later appended to a final report—found the antidepressant Mirtazapine in Mirimanian’s system. There’s no record of medical personnel prescribing him the drug. It’s still unclear how Mirimanian obtained the medication—whether it was given to him or whether he purchased it from a guard or another detained person through the use of his commissary—and if the drug interacted with his heart medications to contribute to his death.
Mike told Prism that, in January of this year, a federal judge found that ICE broke the law by ignoring the Mirimanian family’s information requests and forcing them to take the case to court. The judge also noted that it should “not take a lawsuit” for ICE to comply with FOIA requests regarding in-custody deaths.
“But for us, and for everyone else seeking the truth about how a loved one passed away in government custody, that’s exactly what it takes,” Mike said. “We will not rest until we—and the public—have every document we’re entitled to because we know that no family deserves to lose a loved one to preventable medical neglect inside a government-funded lockup. Without the truth, there can be no accountability.”
In the meantime, Detention Kills and Al Otro Lado informed the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on April 7 of ICE contractors’ unlawful destruction of video evidence in Mirimanian’s death investigation, and of ICE leadership’s failure to report that destruction to NARA. According to an April 13 letter shared with Prism, NARA contacted ICE’s chief records officer, Daniel Tucker, informing him the agency must respond to the allegations within 30 days. If it is determined that an “unauthorized disposition” of records occurred, ICE must detail specific actions the agency will take to address its failure to capture and preserve federal records and the steps it will take to “mitigate future risk.” ICE must also determine if any of the missing records in Mirimanian’s death investigation can be “recreated or duplicated.”
Prism contacted ICE for comment regarding the destruction of files in Mirimanian’s death, the agency’s unlawful withholding of records from Mirimanian’s family, and the presence of an unprescribed antidepressant in Mirimanian’s toxicology report. The agency said it could not respond in time for publication because of “a number of organizational and leadership changes since the time of the incident.”