The voice of Yarelis Gutiérrez Barros was weak as she spoke on the phone from Tampa. At times, it faltered and she broke into sobs. Nearly 36 hours after her fiance was found dead in a punishment cell at the privately run Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, she received one call from U.S. immigration authorities who offered little information.
The callers said they lamented the death of Roylán Hernández Díaz, 43, in a detention center — reportedly a suicide by hanging — and hung up, Gutiérrez said. There was not one word on what happened, what will happen to the body and how to arrange a funeral.
“What I know is from news reports. Nobody in ICE has communicated with me again. I don’t understand why. The only thing I can tell you is that I don’t believe his death was a suicide,” she said.
Gutiérrez, 43, has been in the United States five months, does not have a work permit and survives with the help of a friend. She is at a loss as to how to get to Louisiana, has no money to pay for a funeral, never mind sending the body to Cuba.
“His mother and his children are destroyed,” she said.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) sent the Miami Herald a statement saying that the cause of death appeared to be a “self-inflicted strangulation” and that the case was under investigation.
According to ICE, Hernández “was pronounced dead at 2:21 p.m. local time by facility medical personnel after he was found unresponsive in his cell and efforts by facility staff and emergency personnel to revive him were unsuccessful,” the statement said. “The preliminary cause of death appears to be self-inflicted strangulation; however, the case is currently under investigation.“
The statement added that ICE “is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases.”
The Cuban-born couple met in Ecuador during an immigration surge just before former President Barack Obama ended the wet-foot, dry-foot policy that granted automatic refuge to any Cuban who set foot on U.S. territory.
“He left Cuba looking for freedom. He wanted to go to the United States, but his route was very long and difficult,” said Gutiérrez.
She said Hernández left the island for Guyana in March 2016, leaving behind three young children and his elderly mother. He crossed the Amazon jungles of Brazil and Peru and wound up in Ecuador. He worked in each of those countries to pay for his journey to the United States.
The couple met in Ecuador and began to plan a life together.
“We could not get married in Ecuador because we were undocumented. We wanted to do it as soon as we had our papers. We spoke about it many times, said Gutiérrez.
They reached the U.S. border together on May 18 and asked for political asylum in El Paso, Texas. She was granted parole and was allowed to continue the immigration process without being detained. He was sent to an immigration detention center.
In its statement, ICE confirmed that Hernández was taken into custody on May 20, two days after he was encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol at the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso and was deemed inadmissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
His case began to suffer setbacks while in detention.
“In Mississippi, they told him he had to sign a transfer because that place did not grant parole or bail. He accepted, believing that the process would be faster in Louisiana. But from the time he arrived, the problems started,” said Gutiérrez.
Louisiana has become one of the main ICE detention centers in the United States. Official figures show that more than 8,000 migrants are detained in the state, compared to 51,000 across the country. Most of the detention centers are former prisons far from cities, where most immigration rights activists are concentrated.
“They gave him parole and then took it away without him being able to get out of detention,” Gutiérrez said between sobs. “He asked three times to be released on his word (to appear in court) but the judge denied two of those requests. I believe we’ll never know the result of the third request.”
Hernández was not a man of many words, but he was a good person and very positive, said Gutiérrez.
“He used to tell me that the guards in the detention center were racists and abused the inmates. They told them that they were not going to give asylum to anyone and that they would have to go back to their countries,” she said. “The conditions for the detainees there are inhumane.”
Hernández’ health was not the best and took a turn for the worse in the detention center. Gutiérrez. said he suffered from gastritis and colitis, aggravated by “bad” food.
“He never told me anything about any suicidal thoughts. What he did tell me was what all Cubans say: I will not return to Cuba. I prefer to die. What he wanted to do was start a hunger strike to protest, to force his release, not to die,” Gutiérrez said.
Other detainees at the Richwood Correctional Center contacted el Nuevo Herald to say that Hernández had started a hunger strike and had been sent to isolation cells known as “the pit.”
The detainees also sent a handwritten open letter in Spanish to Sen. Marco Rubio urging the Florida Republican to help resolve the problems of “thousands of Cubans” who “like in the old days … (are fleeing) from a regime that clings to a failed policy.”
“Our situation in these prisons is very difficult from the humane point of view, because each day we face racist acts and innumerable abuses,” they wrote. “We find ourselves together with common prisoners from this country who at times have confronted us … Being opponents of the Cuban regime does not make us criminals.”
“I am increasingly concerned by the growing number of reports we have received of dangerous conditions faced by Cuban nationals in U.S. immigration detention,” Rubio said in a statement. “We have asked ICE to provide us with a detailed response regarding these claims about conditions at these facilities.”
The detainees told relatives that they will start a series of protests and strikes to express their solidarity with Hernández and condemn conditions in the detention centers.