Officials cloaked truth of migrant deaths in jail
Many of the deaths went unnamed and uncounted.
Published: Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 10, 2010 at 1:38 a.m.
Silence has long shroud- ed the men and women who die in the nation's immigration jails. For years, they went uncounted and unnamed in the public record. Even in 2008, when The New York Times obtained and published a federal government list of such deaths, few facts were available about who these people were and how they died.
But behind the scenes, it is now clear, the deaths had already generated thousands of pages of government documents, including scathing investigative reports that were kept under wraps, and a trail of confidential memos and BlackBerry messages that show officials working to stymie outside inquiry.
The documents, obtained over recent months by The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, concern most of the 107 deaths in detention counted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement since October 2003, after the agency was created within the Department of Homeland Security.
The Obama administration has vowed to overhaul immigration detention, a haphazard network of privately run jails, federal centers and county cells where the government holds noncitizens while it tries to deport them.
But as the administration moves to increase over- sight within the agency, the documents show how officials — some still in key positions — used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreat- ment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse.
As one man lay dying of head injuries suffered in a New Jersey immigration jail in 2007, for example, a spokesman for the federal agency told The Times that he could learn nothing about the case from government authori- ties. In fact, the records show, the spokesman had alerted those officials to the reporter's inquiry, and they conferred at length
about sending the man back to Africa to avoid embarrassing publicity.
In another case that year, investigators from the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that unbear- able, untreated pain had been a significant factor in the suicide of a 22-year-old detainee at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, and that the medical unit was so poorly run that other detainees were at risk.
The investigation found that jail medical personnel had falsified a medication log to show that the detain- ee, a Salvadoran named Nery Romero, had been given Motrin. The fake entry was easy to detect: When the drug was supposedly administered, Romero was already dead. Yet those findings were never disclosed to the public or to Romero's relatives on Long Island, who had accused the jail of abruptly depriving him of his prescription painkiller for a broken leg.
In a recent interview, Benjamin Feldman, a spokesman for the jail, which housed 1,503 immigration detainees last year, would not say whether any changes had been made since the death.
In February 2007, in the case of the dying African man, the immigration agency's spokesman for the Northeast, Michael Gilhooly, rebuffed a Times reporter's questions about the detainee, who had suffered a skull fracture at the privately run Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. Gilhooly said that without a full name and alien registration number for the man, he could not check on the case.
But, records show, he had already filed a report warning top managers at the federal agency about the reporter's interest and sharing information about the injured man, a Guinean tailor named Boubacar Bah.
Bah, 52, had been left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours before an ambulance was called.
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,” accord- ing to a memo summarizing the discussion.
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