Voices from Inside Detention: Lucía Vega Jiménez

From the IHRP report "We Have No Rights": Arbitrary Imprisonment and Cruel Treatment of Migrants with Mental Health Issues in Canada

Lucía Vega Jiminez was a Mexican national without status in Canada. She was working as a cleaning lady in Vancouver and sending most of her earnings back home to support her family. She hanged herself on December 20, 2013, while in immigration detention, and a Coroner’s inquest into her death was held in British Columbia in September and October 2014.

Lucía was initially detained by South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Police Service on the Skytrain in Vancouver for failure to pay a fare. Instead of issuing a ticket, transit officials contacted Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA)’s Enforcement and Intelligence Division, who dispatched a CBSA officer to the scene. They took her to a room in the main Skytrain office, where she met with a CBSA officer. This meeting took place on December 1, 2013.

Lucía was not informed of the right, nor given the opportunity to speak to counsel before a CBSA officer questioned her at the Skytrain office. The CBSA officer purported to be her friend and introduced herself as a ‘liaison person.’ However, she asked Lucía questions that, when answered, resulted in self-incrimination, and the resulting information was eventually used against her in a detention hearing.

Lucía had a detention hearing the day after she was initially detained, and her detention was continued. Lucía was issued a deportation order and told she had 15 days to file a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, which is an application indicating that she was afraid to return to Mexico.

Lucía was taken to the Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) at the Vancouver airport, which is a windowless, “dungeon-like” facility in the basement. A private security guard at the IHC completed a Detainee Medical Form, which documents distress or unusual behavior, et cetera.

Lucía was at the IHC three days before being transferred to Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, a provincial jail for women. In Alouette there is an ostensibly separate wing for immigration detainees (there are only a few of them), but they are comingled with the prison population for meals and exercise. In total, Lucía spent just over two weeks (16 days) at Alouette.

Upon her arrival at Alouette, Lucía was interviewed by a mental health screener. This meeting was conducted using an interpreter over the speakerphone. At the inquest this nurse admitted that it was not a suitable way to deal with the language barrier, and that there should have been an interpreter in the room.

Records show that Lucía made subsequent visits to the mental health services at Alouette, because she was distressed about being sent back to Mexico. Another prisoner who testified at the inquest said Lucía was absolutely traumatized at the prospect of going back. Following a meeting with her legal aid lawyer, Lucía met with a nurse and complained of chest pain. The nurse was concerned that the pains were related to stress and emotional trauma, and made an appointment for Lucía to meet with the prison’s mental health coordinator. When Lucía was summoned for her appointment, the record mistakenly said she was released. The appointment was not rescheduled.

Three days later, on December 19, 2013, Lucía was taken to a detention hearing, and subsequently transferred back to the Vancouver IHC at the airport. There was no communication between the jail and CBSA regarding her mental health. According to a lawyer involved with the inquest into her death, CBSA “didn’t even ask or care about whether she was receiving treatment.” This is despite the fact that Lucía appeared significantly distressed at her detention review hearings. In fact, one of her detention hearings was cut short because she was sobbing uncontrollably. The lawyer the IHRP spoke to observed that individuals in positions of authority within the immigration detention regime “are going through the motions, … not adequately paying attention to signs of acute stress.”

The Vancouver airport holding centre is staffed by poorly trained private security guards who make $15 per hour, employed by a company – Genesis – that is contracted by CBSA. At the time of Lucía’s suicide, the facility was understaffed. There was only one security guard at the facility and there were no female guards. At the inquest, the guard on duty admitted that he did not complete his room checks that night. Security video footage revealed that he was playing video games.

The Vancouver airport holding centre has poor ventilation and no natural light or outside access. There is no reading material, only a television on the wall and plastic chairs. There is one bathroom and three stark rooms for sleeping. According to counsel involved with the inquest, “there is no information available, no opportunity to contact a lawyer other than a phone in the public women’s wing.” This phone is the only means through which detainees could access counsel, and immigration lawyers report that it is nearly impossible to arrange meetings with their clients at that facility. Counsel involved with the inquest noted, “These people are being treated like the worst criminals.”

Lucía was essentially unsupervised the morning she hanged herself in the shower—just 19 days after being first detained by CBSA. She had torn the sheets from her bed into strips, and made her way to the bathroom. Forty-two minutes passed before anyone opened the door, and it would have been longer had it not been for three other women waiting to shower. They sensed that something was wrong and called the lone guard. A few agonizing minutes passed before the guard even agreed to go into to the bathroom to check on Lucía. The paramedics arrived within eight minutes, but by that point, Lucía had been without oxygen long enough that her condition was fatal. She died days later at Mount Saint Joseph Hospital.

CBSA buried the news of Lucía’s death for over a month. Lucía’s death only became apparent because of rumours that started to spread in the Mexican community through the other women who were waiting to use the shower after Lucía.

In October 2014, the provincial coroner’s inquest provided a long list of jury recommendations, including that Canada appoint an ombudsperson to mediate any concerns or complaints, and create a civilian organization to investigate critical incidents in CBSA custody. The recommendations also called for a dedicated holding centre for immigration detainees located some distance away from the airport, which should be staffed by CBSA employees, and be above ground to allow for natural light, ventilation and outside access. The jury also recommended that immigration detainees have access to legal counsel, medical services, services offered by non-governmental organizations, and spiritual and family visits; that detainees should be allowed to wear civilian clothing, and telephones should be readily available for free local calls and the use of international calling cards; that bathrooms and sleeping rooms should be self-harm proof.

More than one and a half years after Lucía’s death, the key recommendations have not been implemented. In fact, according to counsel involved with the inquest, “CBSA has not responded in any meaningful way.” Instead, their response “has been focused on measures to physically prevent suicide,” and the recommendations to improve conditions have been ignored.

CBSA’s most notable response to the recommendations was to introduce new requirements for common (rather than private) washrooms for detainees, which are to be first implemented in the Toronto IHC. The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), which participated in the coroner’s inquest, is concerned that this measure actually makes conditions worse for detainees because it infringes on their privacy. According to Loly Rico, President of the CCR, “suicide prevention measures should be guided by respect for human dignity and concern for the individual’s mental health, not measures focused solely on physical prevention of suicide.”

Counsel the IHRP spoke to concluded that, “every step along the way from the moment Lucía was arrested, to when she hanged herself, revealed deep systemic flaws in how the situation was handled."