Deaths Show Hurdles to Detention Reform
New York Times
New York Times
August 21, 2009
In the fall of 2006, a man’s death brought a team of government investigators to the large, privately run immigration jail in
Another death there soon spurred another inquiry, and another scathing report was issued about the care provided by the private company, the Corrections Corporation of America.
But the government scrutiny did not add up to much for Felix Franklin Rodriguez-Torres, 36, an Ecuadorean construction worker who wound up in Eloy that fall as an unauthorized immigrant after being jailed for petty larceny in
He died weeks later of testicular cancer, a typically fast-growing but treatable disease, which had gone undiagnosed and untreated during his two months at Eloy, which holds more than 1,500 detainees. And despite a high-level discussion of his case among federal immigration officials while he was dying — captured in e-mail messages between Washington and Arizona — his death on Jan. 18, 2007, was not listed on the roster of detention fatalities that the agency produced under pressure last year and updated in April.
His death, and the damning reports that preceded it, are coming to light now only through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. On Monday, after inquiries about Mr. Rodriguez’s death by The New York Times, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency added his name and nine others to the public roster — including another unrecorded detainee death at Eloy, in 2005.
The Rodriguez case echoes many others that have spurred demands for an overhaul of the troubled and expanding realm of immigration detention. But in its details, it underscores the daunting challenge facing the Obama administration as it tries to improve detention conditions, starting with greater oversight of places like Eloy.
“The rampant problems of medical and mental health care aren’t just going to go away if there’s more oversight,” said David Shapiro, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U.’s National Prison Project, which has called for legally binding rules on conditions in immigration detention. “There have to be consequences.”
The Corrections Corporation of
Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the department, said the administration had taken its first steps “to improve medical care, custodial conditions, fiscal prudence and ICE’s critical oversight of the immigration detention system, and we will find out why this death wasn’t reported properly.”
The administration’s long-term goal, announced this month as a three-to-five-year plan, is a vastly different detention system, no smaller in size, but less penal in character than the current sprawling mix of jail and prison cells.
At the same time, however, Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, is expanding immigration enforcement. And for now, officials said they would continue to rely on the same prison companies and county jails to house people facing possible deportation for immigration violations.
In some ways, Mr. Rodriguez’s case fits one of Ms. Napolitano’s priorities: detaining people accused of immigration violations who are already in jail for a crime.
Records show that Mr. Rodriguez, who had entered the
Though he pleaded guilty to petty larceny, he maintained his innocence even on his deathbed, said his father, Felix Rodriguez, a legal resident who has been a deliveryman for a
“I understand a prisoner shouldn’t be on a golden bed, but a prisoner is a human being,” the father said in Spanish. “He at least deserves respect when he is so sick he can’t even eat.”
By the time the ailing detainee was taken to the emergency room at
But even while he was dying, a draft synopsis of his case was already circulating in
Just weeks earlier, the agency’s own investigations had linked two Eloy deaths to inadequate medical staffing by the Corrections Corporation, which was then reaping record profits from stepped-up immigration enforcement.
“Medical care in this facility does not meet ICE standards,” the first investigating team wrote to John P. Torres, director of detention and removal operations, after looking into the suicide of a 32-year-old Guatemalan detainee there on Sept. 29, 2006. They noted that a sick call request from the Guatemalan, Jose Lopez-Gregario, had been ignored for a week, even though he was on suicide watch and known to be despondent.
The medical staff — “overwhelmed due to a sudden loss of veteran staff” — apparently assumed he had already been deported. Cut off from care in an isolation cell and racked with guilt that he had left his family without enough food, he hanged himself.
A second team assessed Eloy again after a 27-year-old Colombian was found unconscious in an isolation cell there on Dec. 6, 2006; an “unwitnessed seizure” left him brain-dead. The investigators not only found fault with the way his case had been handled, but also documented systemic problems with the administration of medical care — in contrast to routine audits, in which Eloy, like most detention centers, was typically rated “acceptable” on a checklist.
“The facility has failed on multiple levels to perform basic supervision and provide for the safety and welfare of ICE detainees,” the investigators wrote.
The Colombian, Mario Chavez-Torres, had shown symptoms of bleeding on the brain, and should have been sent for outside evaluation, the report said; a week after his written request for medical attention for “headaches, dizziness and vomiting,” he collapsed in the shower.
A call for medical help by a guard was answered an hour later by a vocational nurse who told the guard: “I’m not qualified. To be honest, I’m just a pill-pusher.” That lone nurse on the night shift was responsible for distributing medication to 300 chronically ill detainees in a population of 1,500, the report said.
The first report had warned that most of the seasoned medical staff left Eloy that fall, months before a planned takeover of its medical unit by ICE’s Division of Immigration Health in 2007. But immigration authorities had continued to send detainees to Eloy, and Mr. Rodriguez was among them.
To his sister Janneth Montesdeoca, who lives in
Considering his dire condition two months later, the swelling was most likely a sign that cancer was blocking his lymph system, said physicians consulted for this article, adding that it should have been caught in a full medical exam. Both reports had noted that though all immigration detainees are supposed to get a medical exam within 14 days of admission, timely exams were not being performed at Eloy that fall.
Most testicular cancer is fast-growing, said Dr. David Weiner, a urologist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in
In a phone call to his mother from Eloy on Dec. 18, 2006, Mr. Rodriguez said he had seen the doctor there many times, complaining of coughing and fever. He promised to telephone again at Christmas. When he did not, his worried family repeatedly contacted his deportation officer, who kept assuring them that Mr. Rodriguez was fine, said his brother-in-law, Leonardo Montesdeoca, a
As the family tells it, they learned the truth about a week after Mr. Rodriguez had been taken to the hospital, in a call from a fellow detainee.
Records show that on Jan. 12, 2007, the hospital told the detention company that he had as little as a week to live. But his sister says the deportation officer would not tell them where Mr. Rodriguez had been hospitalized.
Instead, relatives said, he offered to release the detainee to their care if they paid for a plane ticket to
It was a phone call from Mr. Rodriguez that brought the family to his deathbed. Against the rules, a nurse had lent him her cellphone.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have known if my son was dead or alive,” said his mother, Maria Torres, who lives in
His face lit up when he saw his parents arrive the next day, Mr. Montesdeoca said. They were able to speak for a few hours before the two detention guards at his bedside cut off the visit. When the family returned the next morning, he was in a coma. A few days later, they agreed to discontinue life support.
E-mail messages about his impending death had already ricocheted between
“Thanks for the advance notice,” one official wrote from a BlackBerry after receiving the draft synopsis on Jan. 17, and sending a copy on to John Torres, the director of detention and removal for the agency, and Gary E. Mead, the deputy.
Dr. Gene A. Migliaccio, director of the agency’s Immigration Health Services, was asked “to reach out to
But there is no evidence that the medical records were ever collected. The death was automatically referred to the immigration agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility in
But at least two more detainees died at Eloy in 2008 — a 41-year-old Iraqi and a 52-year-old man from
Mr. Rodriguez’s ashes were mailed to his mother, and when she visited relatives in
“I never want another immigrant to feel this pain,” she said. “Not knowing what to do, his suffering and no way of getting him help.”
A. E. Velez contributed reporting August 21, 2009
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