Settlement in Death of Hassiba Belbachir

PRESS RELEASE
for immediate release
April 4, 2014

JUSTICE FOR HASSIBA BELBACHIR AFTER 9 YEARS OF LITIGATION

On April 3, 2014, People’s Law Office attorneys obtained a seven-figure settlement for the family of Hassiba Belbachir, a vibrant 27 year old Algerian Muslim woman who died on March 17, 2005, abandoned and alone on the cold floor of a cell in immigration detention at McHenry County Jail.

A social worker at the jail who saw Hassiba on March 14, three days before she died, noted that she was suicidal; had a “major depressive disorder;” sobbed throughout the interview; was very depressed; experienced feelings of agitation, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness and helplessness; and believed she was dying, telling the social worker, “death is dripping slowly, drop by drop . . . I’d rather die than live like this.” The social worker deliberately ignored Hassiba’s desperate pleas for help, had no further contact with her, and didn’t bother to tell corrections officers that Hassiba was suicidal. On March 17, Hassiba wrapped her socks around her neck and took her own life.

In ruling that the social worker must stand trial for violating Hassiba’s civil rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals stated:

She was not a criminal and was no danger to any person in the jail, whether staff member, detainee, or visitor. She was an obvious suicide risk who should have been hospitalized or at least placed on suicide watch, during which a guard would have glanced into her cell every 10 minutes. [...]

The defendants could have placed Belbachir in a mental hospital or at least on suicide watch. These were simple and obvious precautions against a risk of suicide. A severely depressed person who has hallucinations, acute anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and who cries continually, talks incessantly of death, and is diagnosed as suicidal, is in obvious danger, and if the danger (known to a defendant) can be averted at slight cost, the failure to try to avert it is willful.

Belbachir v. County of McHenry, 726 F.3d 975 (7th Cir. 2013). [Audio of the June 6, 2013 oral argument is available at: http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/sound/2013/sp.13-1002.13-1002_06_06_2013.mp3.]

Hassiba is survived by her six older siblings, who describe her as having a personality full of joy, that she was like a candle who could light up an entire room. Her brother Mohammed, a veterinarian in France, compared the effect of her death on the family with the destruction of the earth from a meteorite.

It is important to place Ms. Belbachir’s tragic and untimely death in the context of the expansion of immigration detention which routinely violates the human and civil rights of detainees, while it is seen as a profitable business by jail administrators. Her death in 2005 took place on the eve of the opening of a large unit to house ICE detainees in McHenry County, funded with more than $6 million in federal tax dollars. By 2009, by the sheriff’s own admission, renting jail cells to ICE netted the county some $55 million.

Between 2003 and 2013, at least 141 ICE detainees died in custody. While it is impossible to determine the number who took their own lives — Hassiba’s death is listed as an asphyxia — she is clearly one of at least 17 similar deaths in that ten year period.

Attorney Janine Hoft said, “This substantial settlement honors the memory of Hassiba Belbachir and reinforces the necessity to treat all persons in custody with dignity, respect and adequate care. Detainees caught up in our confusing, arbitrary and broken immigration system deserve humane treatment. No one else should die of desperation in our prisons, jails or immigration detention centers.”

 

Rachid Belbachir, her cousin, active in Chicago’s Muslim community, who administers her estate, said, “as a member of the family and Chicago’s Muslim community, I am satisfied that justice for Hassiba is at long last achieved. We hope and pray that the social worker, those who employed her, and those who work at the jail have learned a lesson such that no other immigration detainee will ever have to suffer from having his or her serious needs ignored, and such that no other family will ever have to suffer the loss of a loved one in immigration custody.”

Contacts:
Janine Hoft or Jan Susler 773 235 0070
janinehoft[at]aol.com
jsusler[at]gmail.com