Washington Post Examines Lack of Health Care for Undocumented Immigrants in Detention Centers
The Washington Post as part of a four-day series, titled "Careless Detention," is examining how some immigrants to the U.S. do not receive needed health care while in immigration detention centers. According to the Post, on a given day there are about 33,000 undocumented immigrants in custody of the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Detainees, "by law and regulation," are "entitled to medical services if they are sick," the Post reports.
The centers are "an upside-down world where patients have no say, doctors and nurses on site have little power to administer timely treatment, and a managed care system in Washington operates from a rulebook that emphasizes what is not covered rather than what is," the Post reports (Goldstein/Priest, Washington Post, 5/12). A Post investigation of the system "found a hidden world of flawed medical judgments, faulty administrative practices, neglectful guards, ill-trained technicians, sloppy record-keeping, lost medical files and dangerous staff shortages."
Parts 1 and 2
The Post on Sunday in the first article of the series examined how the "medical neglect" that some detainees experience is "part of the hidden human cost of increasingly strict policies in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. and a lack of preparation for the impact of those policies." The Post profiles several detainees who died after they were denied care or did not receive timely care (Priest/Goldstein, Washington Post, 5/11).
The Post on Monday in the second article of the series profiled Yong Sun Harvill, a 52-year-old immigrant from South Korea who is fighting deportation and whose "journey through immigration detention provides a glimpse into a medical system that often fails those who need it most." Harvill has been unable to get a biopsy to determine if spots on her liver are tumors, and she has an undiagnosed, growing lump on her left knee, the same knee that developed sarcoma years earlier. She also is unable to get a leg pump, which she used before being detained, to relieve swelling and increase circulation in her swollen leg (Washington Post, 5/12).
The Washington Post on Tuesday in the third article in the series examined how immigrants in detention centers who are mentally ill are "relegated to the darkest and most neglected corners of the system," and some "undergo months and sometimes years of undermedication or overmedication, misdiagnosis or no diagnosis." For example, the Post reports that some immigrants are "labeled psychotic when they are not" and that "all they need are interpreters so they can explain themselves."
According to the Post, suicide is the most common cause of death in immigrant detention centers, and "suicide attempts seem to be on the rise." Since 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency took over immigration detainment centers in the U.S., 15 of 83 immigrant deaths were suicides. Internal documents obtained by the Post show that there were 16 suicide attempts in June 2007, 21 in July 2007 and 20 in August 2007.
Although the Division of Immigration Health Services does not have a firm estimate of the number of mentally ill immigrants in the detainment system, internal documents obtained by the Post estimate that about 15% of about 33,000 detainees on any given day, or about 4,500, have a mental illness. That estimate is higher than the publicly disclosed mental illness rate given by ICE, according to the Post. In addition, the Post reports that internal documents show that the number of mentally ill immigrants in detainment centers is on the rise.
Dennis Slate, a top mental health official in the immigrant detainment system, said that the increasing number of mentally ill immigrants in the system has pushed the ratio of staff to mentally ill detainees far lower than in other prison settings. Slate in a May 31, 2007, memo wrote that there is one staff member to 1,142 mentally ill detainees in the immigrant detention system, compared with one to 400 in the Bureau of Prisons and one to 10 in prisons for people with mental illnesses (Priest/Goldstein, Washington Post, 5/13).
The Post also profiles five of the 15 detainees who have committed suicide since 2003 (Goldstein/Priest, Washington Post, 5/13).
In the fourth part of the series, the Post examined how "hundreds of foreigners" have been injected with "dangerous psychotropic drugs against their will to keep them sedated during the trip back to their home country." The Post investigation found more than 250 cases in which the "government has, without medical reason, given drugs meant to treat serious psychiatric disorders to people it has shipped out of the U.S. since 2003," when the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency took control of immigration detainment centers in the U.S. Such "chemical restraint of detainees, unless there is a medical justification, is a violation of some international human rights codes" and is "banned in several countries," according to the Post. In addition, the Post found the "government has routinely ignored its own rules, which allow deportees to be sedated only if they have a mental illness requiring the drugs, or if they are so aggressive that they imperil themselves or people around them." Federal officials have "seldom acknowledged publicly" the practice, and when they have, they have "understated it, portraying sedation as rare and 'an act of last resort'"; however, "[n]either is true," according to the Post. The Post found that during fiscal year 2007, 53 people were sedated without medical justification. Of those people, 48 had no documented history of violence but previously had eluded deportation. The figures do not include two detainees given sedatives for behavioral reasons before they were sent home on commercial flights, according to the Post (Goldstein/Priest, Washington Post, 5/14). Post staff writers Amy Goldstein and Dana Priest, who conducted the investigation, will discuss the series in a washingtonpost.com online chat on Wednesday at 12 p.m. ET (washingtonpost.com, 5/14).
Lawmaker To Introduce Bill To Protect Detained Immigrants
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chair Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) is planning to introduce legislation that would require ICE to improve standards and health care for detained immigrants who are being deported or seeking asylum, CongressDaily reports. A Lieberman aide said the senator is introducing the bill because Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has not improved treatment in the detainment system, as he said he would after the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill failed to become law last year. "Every year we detain in harsh prison conditions tens of thousands of people fleeing oppression and poverty and seeking a better life here," Lieberman said in a statement, adding, "While it is being determined whether or not they are entitled to live in the U.S., we must ensure that they are detained and housed in safe and humane facilities where they receive appropriate medical care and by funding secure alternatives to detention where possible." An ICE spokesperson said the agency would review the legislation but added that ICE has improved quality of care for detainees and oversight of the centers since last summer. According to the spokesperson, since the agency was established in 2003, 71 of 1.5 million immigrants died while in custody (Strohm, CongressDaily, 5/13).
In conjunction with the Post series, CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday reported on medical care for detained immigrants. The segment examines the cases of the Rev. Joseph Dantica, an immigrant who died of pancreatitis while detained; Juan Guevera, a detainee who died of a brain aneurysm; Amina Mudey, an immigrant who allegedly was misdiagnosed as psychotic while being detained; and Francisco Castaneda, an immigrant who died of cancer while in detention (Pelley, "60 Minutes," CBS, 5/11). NPR's "Talk of the Nation" on Wednesday included a discussion with Priest and Goldstein about the Post series (Conan, "Talk of the Nation," NPR, 5/15). NPR's "Tell Me More" on Tuesday included a discussion with Elizabeth Llorente, a reporter who has written about medical care for detained immigrants for the Bergen Record, about the issue (Martin, "Tell Me More," NPR, 5/13). WAMU's "The Diane Rehm Show" on Tuesday in the first hour of the program included a discussion about the Post series and medical care for detainees. Scheduled guests included Priest; Goldstein; Gary Mead, acting director of detention and removal operations for ICE; and Tom Jawetz, immigration detention staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project ("The Diane Rehm Show" Web site, 5/13).