Home > Health Conditions in Detention, News Round-Up, Recent Post > News Round-Up (1/10/10) – The Dangers of Detention: Illness and Death in U.S. Custody

News Round-Up (1/10/10) – The Dangers of Detention: Illness and Death in U.S. Custody

Sarah S. Willen

Just as we were dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s for this latest news round-up, Nina Bernstein’s front-page article in today’s New York Times, “Officials Hid Truth About Immigrant Deaths in Jail,” hammered home the risks and dangers of being ill or injured in a United States immigration prison.  The piece foregrounds the 2007 deaths – in ICE custody – of Nery Romero, originally from El Salvador, and Boubacar Bah, originally from Guinea.

Bernstein’s reporting was facilitated by the recent release of thousands of pages of confidential documents – among them memos, draft reports, “talking points,” and Blackberry messages – to the NYT and the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a companion piece, “Documents Reveal Earlier Immigrant Deaths,” Bernstein shows that these deaths are part of a much longer tale of abuse and neglect. Here she focuses on two detainees: Miguel J. Rodriguez Gonzales, who had end-stage renal disease, diabetes, and chronic heart failure, and Hiu Lui Ng, who suffered from a broken spine and severely advanced, yet undiagnosed, terminal cancer. Not only were Gonzales and Ng denied appropriate care, but they also were physically abused, ridiculed, and humiliated in California and Rhode Island detention centers respectively. And like Romero and Bah, both died in prison under ICE custody.

According to official ICE statistics, 107 people have died in immigration prisons since the agency’s creation as a branch of Homeland Security in October 2003. (By way of comparison, the number was around 62 when Washington Post writer Darryl Frears reported on several similar cases in June and August 2007.) Although the release of these latest findings and figures is valuable and welcome, there is no reason to believe that transparency alone will improve immigrant detainees’ access to health care or bring the horrifying phenomena of medical neglect, prisoner abuse, and cover-up of detainee deaths to a halt.

Many hold ICE directly responsible, yet we cannot forget that many immigrant detainees are held in prisons operated by private, for-profit corporations like GEO (formerly Wackenhut). In a recent Boston Review article and related interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, for instance, journalist Tom Barry reports on the death of detainee Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died in solitary confinement in a privately run prison in Pecos, Texas, on December 12th, 2008. According to Galindo’s family members, who were in daily contact with him until shortly before his death, prison guards repeatedly refused to provide him with medications needed to treat his severe epilepsy. Instead Galindo (like Boubacar Bah, as described by Bernstein) was locked up in “the hole” – solitary confinement – and ignored by prison guards. When Galindo died on alone on December 12th, 2008, it took guards between three and five hours to notice.

According to attorney Miguel Torres, who has filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of Galindo’s family (including his U.S. citizen children), Galindo’s mother and fellow inmates “repeatedly urged prison officials to give Galindo his medication and to get him out of the security housing unit (SHU)—solitary confinement—where he had been placed for medical observation in November after an emergency stay at an area hospital due to a severe seizure,” Barry writes. Galindo’s mother had even “mailed the prison his medical records, but they sent them back with a curt note that said, ‘Don’t send these again.’”

(In December 2009, relatives and protestors gathered in Pecos to commemorate the one-year anniversary of both Galindo’s death and of the “solidarity demonstrations” – described by prison officials as riots – that broke out among fellow detainees to protest the lack of medical care and intolerable prison conditions that led to Galindo’s death. Click here for more on the December 2008 “motin,” or “mutiny,” in the Pecos Prison.)

Beyond the media mainstream, we stumbled upon another recent story involving a similar suit against ICE, the Division of Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security, and various individuals surrounding the death of Juan Carlos Baires, an HIV-positive detainee who was denied medications and died of a staph infection at the Lerdo Jail in Kern County, California. Baires’ family, along with Teofilo Miranda, another detainee denied care for HIV, seek punitive damages for medical indifference, negligence and malpractice, and constitutional violations.

These and related reports suggest that U.S. immigration prisons are engaged in the regular and systematic violation of detainees’ basic human rights. Most of these detainees possess no criminal record whatsoever, which makes these incidents all the more appalling. As attorney Joshua Bardavid, who represented deceased former detainee Hiu Lui Ng, told Nina Bernstein, “There are tremendous acts of cruelty, and these are not just rogue individuals.  If there’s a common thread, it’s the system. It really is a systemic problem.”

Now that ICE has finally released a trove of confidential documentation concerning the 107 detainees who have died in its custody, a crucial question stands before us: What sorts of additional reporting, critical analysis, and action are needed to move from straightforward recognition of this systemic problem to the development and implementation of an effective, just, system-wide solution?

Sarah S. Willen, PhD, MPH is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University and a founding member of the ACCESS DENIED blog team.

Nolan Kline and Jessica Mulligan contributed background research for this update.

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