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Mentally disabled detainees denied due process

Photo courtesy: The New York Times

When a government decides to deprive someone of their liberty, that government is responsible for ensuring that all of that person’s health care needs are met, including mental health needs.

In a shocking expose, The New York Times has published an article focusing on the plight of immigrants with mental illness who face deportation. Xiu Ping Jiang is an immigrant from China seeking asylum in the U.S.

For a year and a half Ms. Jiang, a waitress with no criminal record and a history of attempted suicide, was locked away in an immigration jail in Florida. Often in solitary confinement, she sank ever deeper into mental illness, relatives say, not eating for days, or vomiting after meals for fear of being poisoned.

Mental illness in U.S. prisons and immigration detention is a growing problem. This problem is especially acute when torture survivors and asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. already traumatized are then placed in detention ill-equipped to handle their mental health needs.

Given their vulnerability, its easy to see how immigrants with mental disabilities can be denied a fair hearing. One of the major reasons for this is also that immigrants are not entitled a right to a lawyer. Although emerging international standards favor a right to counsel, the U.S. does not agree, and as a result, many immigrants are unable to afford counsel and represent themselves.

Like Ms. Jiang who languished in detention for many months. Other cases have documented U.S. citizens with mental disabilities unlawfully deported.

All of this has prompted a group of 77 mental health experts, civil rights lawyers and immigration advocates to send a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. asking for protections. Many advocates have also pinned their hopes on an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on september 15th on ‘Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons and Detention Facilities’.

Ms. Jiang was finally released from detention because the New York Times publicized her case. She is awaiting a final decision. Not everyone is so lucky.

Photo courtesy of