PLO Fights for Constitutional Rights for Undocumented Persons

On March 17, 2005, Hassiba Belbachir, a 27 year old woman from Algeria who was being detained in immigration (ICE) custody while she applied for political asylum, died in her cell at the McHenry County Jail. She was found lying on the floor of her cell, her jail-issued knee socks wrapped around her neck with her face purplish in color, indicating that she had died some time before she was found. Throughout her detention, Hassiba had cried out for help, both to jail guards and health workers, continually indicating that she was deeply psychologically injured and suicidal. But her pleas for help were ignored and she died alone, with the jail not even calling her consulate or her family. Hassiba’s family and the local Arab American and Muslim communities were justifiably outraged at the failure of the legal authorities to help Hassiba in her hours of need, and contacted People’s Law Office to bring a lawsuit to expose the blatant failure of the authorities to afford undocumented persons such as Hassiba their constitutional rights.

PLO attorneys have fought the case on behalf of Hassiba for the past eight years. On  June 6, 2013, PLO attorneys presented arguments before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that immigration detainees must be afforded protection under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and that Hassiba’s treatment at McHenry County Jail must not be tolerated. Judges Richard Posner, Ilana Rovner and Diane Wood heard the case and will issue a written decision that will have far-reaching ramifications for the policies and practices of detention facilities as well as the treatment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees.

Hassiba discovered Chicago on the internet and came here to enjoy the city for several months. After her stay, she took a flight to London, but was denied entry to the United Kingdom and the authorities there returned her to Chicago. At O’Hare, Customs and Border Patrol agents questioned her and took her into custody to process her application for political asylum. English was not Hassiba’s first language; in  fact it was her fourth, after Arabic, French and Spanish.

CBP agents transferred her to the lock up of the StonePark police station to await pick up by immigration agents. During the early morning hours of March 9, she was so stricken and upset that she was taken to the emergency room of GottliebHospital, where she was treated and then returned to police lock up. Immigration agents then took her to Broadview Service Staging Area where she awaited transport to the McHenry County Jail. Federal authorities did not screen her for any physical or mental health issues.

At McHenry County Jail she reported a history of suicide attempt and indicated she was currently suicidal. From March 9 to March 14, she sobbed, begged to have her cell door left open, and suffered two severe panic attacks during which she manifested extreme symptoms including physical paralysis, immobility and the inability to respond verbally or to pain stimuli. She told a social worker she could not live anymore and she felt her death “dripping slowly drop by drop.” She was placed in a dark, isolated, medical cell, doped up with anti-anxiety medication and ignored. She received no follow up from medical personnel and corrections staff failed to intervene or properly observe her. On March 15 she wrote an extensive suicide note and on March 16 she began lying face down on her cement cell floor, huddled near the door so that only her legs could be seen through the observation window of her cell door. Finally, on March 17 when a correctional officer brought her a sack supper she was discovered motionless on the floor, but it was too late and she was pronounced dead.

PLO filed the lawsuit in March of 2006 against McHenryCounty officials and the jail medical provider, Centegra, and its employees. PLO lawyers Jan Susler and Janine Hoft deposed scores of County, Centegra and federal employees, and Hassiba’s sister flew in from Canada and her brother from France to be deposed and describe the wonderful but vulnerable person that Hassiba was. Her brother testified that she was the center of their family, and that when she died it was like a meteor hit the earth.

In September of 2012, the district judge assigned to the case granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment and dismissed all the federal claims against all defendants. We were outraged at this decision to let the authorities off the hook and immediately filed an appeal. PLO lawyers argued that Centegra personnel were deliberately indifferent to Hassiba’s serious medical and mental health needs and that McHenry County had woefully inadequate suicide prevention policies at the jail. Suicide is an unfortunately common phenomenon in jails and prisons and it is well known that detention facilities must have policies and practices in place to protect and safeguard prisoners. There was no written suicide prevention policy at the jail, no  annual or periodic suicide prevention training, although both are required by state and federal standards, and crucial communication between medical and correctional staff did not occur. PLO argued that individuals detained on immigration violations are entitled to the utmost protection of the Constitution and that the Fourth Amendment – which forbids unreasonable seizures – should apply. We are cautiously optimistic that we will obtain a decision in Hassiba’s favor, and that we will be able to present the facts to a jury which will hold McHenry and Centegra accountable for ignoring  Hassiba’s clear medical needs and thus causing her death.