Death by Detention Death by Detention

Death by Detention

by William Wheeler

February 24, 2009
When illegal immigrants waiting to be deported die in custody, who is to blame?Guido Newbrough wasWhen officers knocked on his door of his home in Manassas, a northern Virginia town with a swelling Hispanic population, early one morning in February of last year, Jack Newbrough told them his stepson was at work. "They said to call him and tell him to come home," he recalls. "As soon as he came in the house they put the cuffs on him and took him away." For Guido, a 48-year-old construction worker, it wasn't his first time in handcuffs. Five years earlier, he had struck a plea bargain-admitting no guilt, but conceding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convince a jury-on charges of molesting his girlfriend's daughter, which landed him four months in jail, a $2,100 fine, mandatory therapy sessions, and five years probation. He thought his legal troubles were behind him. "He had no idea what it was about or anything," says Jack. "They just had him sign the arrest documents and took him away." That was the last time he saw his stepson alive.Contrary to what he believed, Guido was not an American citizen. He was born in Germany and left two years later, when his mother Heidi married Jack, a U.S. Air Force sergeant stationed overseas. After a three-year tour in London, the family moved back stateside. Heidi and Guido secured green cards, placed them in a safe upstairs in the four-bedroom colonial home they bought, and simply moved on with life. "I don't think he ever thought twice about it," says Jack. "He graduated from high school-he thought he was an American citizen." But Guido's immigration status, he would learn, had flagged him in a government operation that searches probation records to find deportable sex offenders.Taken to Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, three hours away, Guido was one of the roughly 300 immigrants indefinitely detained there, without the rights or protections he had as a criminal inmate. Jack hired an attorney. "He told us right off this is a tough one. But we kept saying to ourselves it will work out. Because why wouldn't it work out?" he says.
Image from Piedmont Regional Jail.When a judge ruled that Guido should be deported to Germany, Jack was baffled. "I said to the judge, ‘You mean you would send somebody all the way back there when they don't speak the language and they don't have any relatives there?' She told me, ‘We do it all the time.'" To fight the deportation, Jack says he paid a $360 application fee to appeal the case and wrote to his congressman.After several months in the jail, Guido began to complain about pain in his stomach and back. His mother told him to tell the doctors. "Yeah, I told them," he replied. "But they don't care."Guido's symptoms worsened dramatically. Subsequent reports from other detainees described him sobbing, his pleas for medical attention unanswered, as they made hot compresses for his back and took turns staying up with him through the night. Finally, say several detainees, after Guido turned to pounding on the door in desperation and shouting for help, guards accused him of faking his illness and dragged him, shouting, into an isolation cell. (An official at the jail disputes this version of events, saying that Guido was put under medical observation.)On Thanksgiving evening, after several worried days without word from Guido, Jack got a call from the jail saying that his son was gravely ill and had been taken to hospital. By the time the Newbroughs arrived, they found Guido unconscious with a tube in his mouth, dying of a heart infection that can be routinely treated with antibiotics.Without medical records from the jail, it's hard to say what, if any, attention was given to Guido's pleas for help. If the claims made by his family and some detainees are true, the failure to provide medical care, and his continued isolation, would be considered violations of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement protocol, according to Dr. Homer D. Venters, a New York University internist and a member of an ICE advisory group who reviewed the autopsy report. What is clear, Venter writes, is that "by the time Mr. Newbrough was transported to the hospital, his heart had begun to fail and he was likely suffering from multiple organ failure."Two hours after his family arrived, his mother sobbing beside him, Guido's heart stopped. "There was an officer there with a gun waiting for him to expire," says Jack. "He couldn't leave there until he died."The emerging details of Newbrough's death are the latest in a series of scandals over the immigrant detention system, a network of some 350 county jails, federal facilities, and private prisons where nearly half a million undocumented immigrants are detained each year while a judge rules whether they should be deported. Last May, the Washington Post published an investigation into a pattern of medical neglect in the detention system, describing it as "part of the hidden human cost of increasingly strict policies in the post-Sept. 11 United States and a lack of preparation for the impact of those policies. The detainees have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons and some have fewer comforts than al-Qaeda terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay." The investigation concluded that actions taken-or not taken-by medical staff contributed to as many as 30 deaths, out of the 83 deaths that had been reported in custody.The swelling of the immigrant detention system, which held only a few thousand people 15 years ago, is a recent phenomenon. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, after which immigration officials were given expanded powers under the Department of Homeland Security, ICE has become the nation's second largest enforcement agency with a $5 billion budget. A recent policy change now proscribes mandatory detention for all those picked up. Combined with highly publicized workplace raids, the effect is a larger enforcement net that is bringing an unprecedented number of people-no longer just the felons or those picked up along the border, but often people with longtime family and community ties-into the detention system. The agency now leases a fleet of 10 planes, which it uses to deport some 350,000 people a year.
The system is not without its defenders. "Without enforcement, the law is meaningless," says Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates strict enforcement of immigration laws. "Of course, for enforcement to be effective there has to be a lot of detention that goes along with it."But, amid increased scrutiny from lawmakers and the media, a broad array of rights groups is calling for changes in a system that operates with little oversight and detains people indefinitely-often for months, sometimes for years- without entitlement to a lawyer, or the protections afforded criminal inmates.Last spring, after being denied access three times to a private detention center, Jorge Bustamante, the U.N. special rapporteur on migrants' rights, issued a stinging report that claimed the detention system violates international and human rights law. He called for an end to mandatory detention and for officials to issue codified regulations about how detainees are treated-a move long advocated by the American Bar Association. Immigration officials released a new set of "performance-based" standards that govern the conditions of detainees last fall, but have resisted the call for enforceable regulations."If they aren't legally enforceable, they are not going to be initiated," said Andrea Black of Detention Watch Network, a coalition of about 100 organizations working on immigrant detention and deportation issues. "We've seen that in the last ten years, which has led to inhumane conditions, abuse and the rising number of deaths."Cori Bassett, an ICE spokeswoman, says the agency requires all the contract facilities that hold ICE detainees to "to meet or exceed our standards," and investigates all reports that detainees are not receiving the proper care. As an example, Bassett points to the investigation into the death of a 34-year-old Chinese computer engineer following his detention in the privately run Donald W. Wyatt detention center in Rhode Island. Hiu Lui Ng, who was picked up during his final interview for a green card, spent several months in detention while his complaints of excruciating back pain went unattended. He was eventually taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a fractured spine and late-stage cancer.An ICE investigation found he was denied a wheelchair, as well as access to counsel and a medical appointment, says Bassett. After concluding that the facility's staff "failed to adhere to the facility's own use-of-force policy," ICE canceled its contract and removed its detainees-an example, she says, of the way the agency's standards are enforced.But a recent revelation would seem to undermine the argument that ICE always takes the appropriate action when standards are not being met. It comes from one of the first cases that triggered calls for Congressional oversight-a death of another immigrant detainee held in the same jail, and under similar circumstances, as Guido Newbrough.
In September, 2006, a 50-year-old mechanic named Abdoulai Sall showed up for a green card interview in Fairfax, Virginia. Born in Guinea, Sall had spent the past 17 years working at Washington, D.C., taxi company, and his boss had agreed to sponsor his application. When he showed up at the interview, he was arrested on an outstanding deportation order and was transferred to the Piedmont Regional jail in Farmville.Sall's attorney, Paul S. Allen, wrote numerous letters to authorities warning them his client suffered a kidney disorder, that he was not getting the appropriate medication, and that his feet had begun to swell. "I don't make assumptions that the government is going to do the right thing," he said recently.In December of that year, Allen learned his client was dead. Tom Jawetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, wrote to detainees at the Piedmont jail for information about Sall's death and learned he had indeed been sick for a prolonged period and, in his final days, was seen shivering under a heater for warmth. "Everyone knew that he was requesting care," said Jawetz. When Sall collapsed, the detainees took it upon themselves to call 911. Allen wrote the county sheriff saying the circumstances of his client's death were "suspicious and suggested negligence," and asking how he planned to investigate the matter.While jails officials denied any wrongdoing and ICE defended the quality of care, an internal investigation actually concluded that "the facility has failed on multiple levels to perform basic supervisions and provide for the safety and welfare of ICE detainees." That report, which was obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU, was published last month in The New York Times.Jawetz called the internal report "a very serious indictment" of the agency's inability to provide oversight at its contract facilities. "There are clearly some parallels [between the deaths] that raise serious questions about what, if anything, ICE did to make sure those concerns about detainee health are mitigated."The issue isn't about the debate over immigration, says California congresswoman Zoe Lofgren a co-sponsor of the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act, a bill that is under House consideration. "Wherever you stand on the issue of reforming immigration law, common decency and the Constitution require a provision of basic medical care to those in custody," she says. "You have to feed them, supply them with water and a basic level of medical care. When you have someone in custody they can't go down the street and get a burger at Burger King. They can't go down the street and get their own physician. That's true for every county jail and its true for ICE as well."Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer who chairs the House Subcommittee that heard inquiry on the detention system last spring, pointed to the case of Francisco Castaneda as an example of how some immigration authorities might be breaking the law. Castaneda was in a private detention center in San Diego when he developed a painful lesion on his penis. In spite of doctors' recommendations, Castaneda's pleas for medical attention went unanswered for 11 months. The 36-year-old man was eventually castrated and died last February of metastasized cancer. A federal court judge said the treatment Castaneda received "can be characterized by one word: nothing," and called the case "one of the most, if not the most, egregious" violations of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment that "the court has ever encountered."But Lofgren and others have said that to fix some of the current problems in the detention system, administrative reforms-not legislation-would be the most efficient route. Some expect the Obama administration to make such policy reforms within the next few months. Immigration is one of seven priority issues to which the president assigned a study group, and his top domestic policy advisor recently committed not to forget its campaign promises to the immigrant community that proved decisive in his victories in several key states.Since deaths in custody have become front-page news, said Jawetz, immigration officials have already taken some commendable actions themselves, removing detainees from several facilities. "What we need to do now is make sure they aren't just removing detainees from a facility after they have died," he said.  "We need to make sure that the day-to-day oversight that they perform is sufficient to make sure that detainees don't unnecessarily die in the first place."
What that means for Farmville is unclear. A rural town in the rolling hills of central Virginia, it is home to 7,000 residents (with a median household income just over $26,000) and a withering manufacturing industry. In a clearing just off a main drag, construction is underway on a 1,040-bed facility that investors are hoping will become the largest immigrant detention facility in the mid-Atlantic. If ICE approves the site when it's finished, the facility could generate millions of dollars in profit, as well as hundreds of thousands in taxes for city and county coffers, and new jobs for residents.The project is not without opposition. Armed with research from Washington State University on the debilitating effects prison projects have on local economies, community organizer Jeff Winder has been speaking at town council meetings, distributing flyers at the town Christmas parade, and organizing protests, including a vigil for Abdoulai Sall and Guido Newbrough in early December.Winder takes issue with the fact that the investors behind the new private detention facility have no experience in caring for detainees. They've promised to build a facility that benefits from economies of scale, offering better conditions for detainees at a lower cost to taxpayers. Neither argument has managed to dissuade Winder. "When we talk about turning over prisons to free market principles, you can see where that got Wall Street," he said. "We're going to have private shareholders making profit and lobbying for more criminal legislation and penalties.  For them its just dollars and cents but the human cost is incredible."Jack Newbrough, who has filed a lawsuit for wrongful death, agrees. "That was my son. He didn't deserve that," he says. "Nobody in this country deserves that."After large-scale transfers in recent weeks, Piedmont is housing only around 60 immigrant detainees (down from 300). Immigration officials have denied that the transfers have anything to do with the investigation underway into Newbrough's death.I wrote ICE spokesperson Cori Bassett for an explanation as to why detainees were not removed from Piedmont jail after the investigation into Sall's death determined that "the facility has failed on multiple levels to perform basic supervisions and provide for the safety and welfare of ICE detainees."She replied: "Among ICE's highest priorities is to ensure safe, humane conditions of confinement for those in our custody. We make every effort to enforce all existing standards and, whenever possible, to improve upon them. When we find that standards are not being met, we take immediate action to correct deficiencies and when we believe that the deficiencies cannot be corrected, we take action to relocate our detainees to other facilities."In response to my question of whether ICE is in the process of removing all detainees or canceling its contract with the jail, she replied: "The investigation remains ongoing and it would not be appropriate to comment further until the investigation is completed."Images courtesy of William Wheeler.
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Death by Detention