As inquest begins, another death in immigration custody

Georgia man died on the weekend while in custody of the Canada Border Services Agency

A Georgia man charged with child cruelty in connection with the death of his one-year-old foster son—and who recently fled to Ontario and filed a refugee claim—died on the weekend while in custody of the Canada Border Services Agency, Maclean’s has learned.

Niagara Regional Police issued a short press release Sunday afternoon, announcing that Ontario’s chief coroner is investigating the case of an inmate who sustained a “serious injury” Sept. 22 and died in hospital five days later. The release did not identify the man, jailed at the provincial Niagara Detention Centre in Thorold, except to say he was a “detainee of the Canada Border Services Agency” (CBSA).

But sources confirm the inmate—who was rushed to hospital after attempting suicide—was Joseph Charles Todd Dunn, a 43-year-old from the Atlanta region who was arrested in November 2010 and accused of “excessively shaking” one of his foster children, 20-month-old Russell Chapman. The arrest warrant alleged that Dunn acted “maliciously,” rocking the boy so violently he caused a “brain shift, brain swelling, and hemorrhaging in the victim’s eye sockets.” (“All I can say is that he died of injuries caused by traumatic abuse,” a spokeswoman for the Henry County police department said at the time.)

Although Dunn was originally charged with both felony murder and first-degree cruelty to a child, the murder count was later dropped. Whether his case continued to be prosecuted is not clear; documents filed with the Henry County courthouse suggest Dunn was still facing a charge, but the police department is closed on weekends and investigators could not be reached for comment. (Court records also reveal Dunn and his wife filed for bankruptcy a year after his arrest, claiming debts of more than US$142,000.)

What is certain is that Dunn drove to a border crossing in the Niagara region in mid-September and claimed asylum. CBSA detained him on the grounds he was inadmissible to Canada for reasons of “serious criminality,” an allegation that must be argued in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Last Monday, Sept. 22, Dunn appeared in front of the IRB for a detention review, where he was ordered to remain behind bars because he posed a flight risk.

When he returned to the prison after the hearing, one source said, Dunn used a bed sheet to hang himself from a shower. He was on life support until Saturday.

News of his death comes as the border agency faces increasing criticism over its handling of immigrant detainees who are locked up pending deportation. By chance, the British Columbia Coroners Service will begin a much-anticipated public inquest Monday morning into a similar case: the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a 42-year-old failed refugee claimant from Mexico who hanged herself last December inside a CBSA holding centre at Vancouver International Airport. She died in hospital eight days later.

Her death triggered an outcry in B.C., galvanizing advocates who have long demanded independent civilian oversight for an agency with such broad powers of arrest and detention. Many were especially upset that her case was first publicized by a journalist, not the CBSA. “We are quite angry about what happened,” the Mexican consul-general in Vancouver, Claudia Franco Hijuelos, told a news conference earlier this year. “We expect the authorities to conduct an impartial investigation.”

CBSA has the authority to detain foreign nationals and Canadian permanent residents under certain conditions. An officer must have reasonable grounds to believe a person is inadmissible to Canada—and that he or she is a flight risk, a danger to the public, or their identity has not been firmly established. Stats previously released by the agency show that in 2013, 10,088 people were detained for immigration violations; of those, 6,972 were released, 3,061 were removed, and the average length of incarceration was 20 days.

But there are rare cases that drag on far longer than that. One man, now known as Michael Mvogo, has been in custody since 2006 because authorities have no idea who he is or where he should be deported. In July, a United Nations committee told Canada it should immediately free the so-called “Man with No Name” because his imprisonment violates international laws against indefinite detention.

Last week, a Canadian Press report revealed the findings of a confidential Red Cross inspection that listed numerous shortcomings at facilities for immigrant prisoners, including triple-bunked cells, lack of support for detained children, and inadequate mental health care. It also found that because many cities do not have dedicated CBSA jail cells, foreigners facing immigration violations are often housed in provincial jails or police facilities alongside hardened criminals.

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