Acts of cruelty to immigrants

January 14, 2010

Eric Ruder reports on a New York Times investigation that has uncovered horrific abuses of immigrant detainees in privately run U.S. detention centers.

BOUBACAR BAH, a 52-year-old Guinean tailor living in New York, received permission from immigration authorities to travel outside the U.S. in the spring of 2006 while his immigration case was pending, and for the first time in nearly a decade, he was able to visit his family.

A year later, Bah died in the custody of U.S. immigration authorities at a privately run immigrant detention center in Elizabeth, N.J. Bah is one of more than 107 immigrants who have died in such detention centers since October 2003.

According to a series of New York Times articles by Nina Bernstein, there are almost certainly more such deaths, but finding out about them is extremely difficult.

Bernstein's reporting has unearthed an orchestrated effort by immigration authorities to shroud in secrecy a litany of abuses, including inadequate medical treatment at poorly run private prisons, and managers and staff engaged in abusive treatment of the people under their control.

While Bah was away in Africa, his green card application was rejected and his permission to re-enter the U.S. revoked--which he learned about when he was arrested upon landing at New York's Kennedy airport. He faced a horrible choice: He could either turn around and go back to Guinea, or he could continue fighting his deportation from a New Jersey detention center run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, where a 22-year-old immigrant detainee committed suicide in 2007
Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, where a 22-year-old immigrant detainee committed suicide in 2007 (Ari Hahn)

For almost a year, Bah languished in detention while his case inched through the appeals process. He kept his spirits up by staying in touch with family and friends by phone.

Then one day, the friend he shared an apartment with in New York received a phone call from another inmate at the detention center. The caller explained that Bah was in the hospital with a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages. Though Bah had been injured four days earlier, no one from the CCA facility or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency which handles immigration issues, had contacted Bah's lawyer, friends or family.

To this day, it's not clear how Bah was injured, but according to reports obtained by the Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, he fell in the bathroom of his dorm.

Whatever the source of his injuries, these reports state that when Bah came to, he became agitated and uncooperative, and so guards decided to shackle him--with the approval of the physician's assistant who was on call. Over the next several hours, he was placed in solitary confinement, even though he was vomiting on himself. A series of staff reports show that his condition continued to worsen to the point that he was unresponsive when he was given his dinner.

Some 15 hours after his "fall," the center's medical personnel finally called an ambulance, and Bah was rushed into emergency brain surgery. On the fifth day after his surgery, his family was finally notified by immigration officials. For the next four months, Bah was in a coma.

According to the Times:

While he lay in the hospital in a coma after emergency brain surgery, 10 agency managers in Washington and Newark conferred by telephone and e-mail about how to avoid the cost of his care and the likelihood of "increased scrutiny and/or media exposure," according to a memo summarizing the discussion.

One option they explored was sending the dying man to Guinea, despite an e-mail message from the supervising deportation officer, who wrote, "I don't condone removal in his present state as he has a catheter" and was unconscious. Another idea was renewing Mr. Bah's canceled work permit in hopes of tapping into Medicaid or disability benefits.

Eventually, faced with paying $10,000 a month for nursing home care, officials settled on a third course: "humanitarian release" to cousins in New York, who had protested that they had no way to care for him. But days before the planned release, Mr. Bah died.

After Bah's death, Scott Weber, the director of the ICE field office in Newark, suggested in a memo that the agency should consider paying for the transport and burial of the body in Guinea--hardly an agency standard practice--in order to prevent Bah's widow from coming to the U.S. for a funeral that might draw unwanted press coverage.

UPON TAKING office, the Obama administration pledged to overhaul the mismanaged patchwork of privately run prisons and federal facilities used to house immigrant detainees. But the Times reports that some of the very same officials who oversaw the abuses have "used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse."

The many examples of medical neglect and mistreatment are horrifying. According to a report by ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility, "unbearable, untreated pain" drove one 22-year-old detainee at New Jersey's Bergen County Jail to commit suicide. The report concluded that other detainees were at risk because the jail's medical unit was so poorly run.

The ICE investigation also "found that jail medical personnel had falsified a medication log to show that the detainee, a Salvadoran named Nery Romero, had been given Motrin," according to the Times. "The fake entry was easy to detect: When the drug was supposedly administered, Mr. Romero was already dead."

In summer 2007, Hiu Lui Ng went to ICE headquarters in Manhattan for what he thought was his final interview for a green card. Ng was a Chinese computer programmer who came to the U.S. with his parents in 1992, married a U.S. citizen and had two U.S.-born sons, a house in Queens and a job in the Empire State Building.

But when he arrived, he was arrested for overstaying a visa years earlier and plunged into a nightmare that landed him in a string of detention centers throughout New England.

Months later, in April 2008, Ng began experiencing horrible back pain, and by July, he could no longer walk or stand. In August, "two days after his 34th birthday, he died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a Rhode Island hospital, his spine fractured and his body riddled with cancer that had gone undiagnosed and untreated for months," according to the Times.

Affidavits filed by Ng's lawyers show that Ng was given analgesics to deal with his complaints of intense pain, and that even when he could no longer stand to use the detention center pay phone to call his family, officials insisted that he was faking his condition.

According to the Times:

[Guards] denied him a wheelchair and refused pleas for an independent medical evaluation. Instead, the affidavits say, guards at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., dragged him from his bed on July 30, carried him in shackles to a car, bruising his arms and legs, and drove him two hours to a federal lockup in Hartford, where an immigration officer pressured him to withdraw all pending appeals of his case and accept deportation.

Video footage from the center's security cameras show the guards ridiculing Ng as they load him into a van. "There are tremendous acts of cruelty, and these are not just rogue individuals," Joshua Bardavid, one of Ng's lawyer, told the Times. "If there's a common thread, it's the system. It really is a systemic problem. I'm glad there are changes in the works, but obviously it's too late for a lot of people. And I'm skeptical until I see actually substantive changes and independently enforceable rules."

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