deaths in detention: symptom of a deeper problem

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Roberto Lovato has been sounding the alarm for weeks now on the deaths in detention scandal that ICE is now trying to brush under the rug.  I have to admit I’ve not yet given the issue the attention it deserves in this small corner of the blogosphere. 

As is often the case, Nina Bernstein broke the story in the NY Times.  The Times’ editorial board, headed up on this issue by Lawrence Downes, followed up with an opinion piece citing Bernstein's article. 

Ms. Bernstein chronicled the death of Boubacar Bah, a tailor from Guinea who was imprisoned in New Jersey for overstaying a tourist visa. He fell and fractured his skull in the Elizabeth Detention Center early last year. Though clearly gravely injured, Mr. Bah was shackled and taken to a disciplinary cell. He was left alone — unconscious and occasionally foaming at the mouth — for more than 13 hours. He was eventually taken to the hospital and died after four months in a coma.

Nobody told Mr. Bah’s relatives until five days after his fall. When they finally found him, he was on life support, soon to become one of the 66 [ed. note: the Post reports the number is now 83] immigrants known to have died in federal custody between 2004 and 2007. Mr. Bah’s family still does not know the full story of when or how he suffered his fatal injuries.

The Washington Post also published a series of articles from heavy-hitting reporters Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein, who later responded to readers about the series here. 

ICE went into damage control mode, pushing back by claiming that deaths in detention are lower than those among the general prison population.  Given that we imprison more people, both per capita and overall, than any other country in the world, given that we are one of the few outliers in the developed world to maintain the barbaric custom of state-sanctioned murder of prisoners, and that rape of prisoners is so widespread and unremarkable as to have entered the public consciousness as sitcom and standup fodder, this is cold comfort. 

But ICE’s claim may not even be true. 

Amy Goldstein reported on the congressional hearings on detainee medical care yesterday (via Man Eegee): 

Myers and committee Republicans said that ICE figures show that the rate of deaths among detainees has fallen in recent years, and that fewer people die in immigration detention than in prison.

But one witness, who works in detention centers with foreigners seeking asylum in the United States, disputed ICE's claims, saying that health care in detention centers "is getting worse, not better." Homer Venters, a physician at the Bellevue-New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, said ICE's assertion that deaths among detainees fell by 49 percent between 2006 and 2007 is misleading.

Venters said those figures ignore the fact that detainees are, on average, spending less time in custody. Taking the length of stay into account, he testified, the mortality rate during that period increased by 20 percent.

Venters said ICE's assertion that fewer people die in immigration detention than in prison also is misleading because detainees tend to be younger and in custody for less time than prisoners.

While these reporters at the Times and Post deserve big ups for putting this story into the mainstream, the story has gone unreported for some time.  That is how we got to 83 deaths without much noise.  I learned from Aarti Shahani at Families for Freedom that FFF and other organizations have been tracking this issue for years.  In 2004, a FFF delegation went to a detention center in the South to investigate a death in detention there.  They tried to find a reporter who would pick up the story—they were pretty much ignored.  How many have died since then? 

Another problem Aarti raised at this event was that the recent immigrant detention medical care bill and Congressional hearings prompted by the recent news articles are in a way a diversion from the real problem: Our government is on a politically-motivated spree to jail and deport every migrant who so much as looks at a cop wrong.  Good medical care is important, but locking hardworking people up and deporting them, breaking up thousands of families along the way, is the issue that should be addressed here.  Throwing migrants into prison because we’ve made it impossible for them to get here through legal channels or stay here lawfully defies common sense and makes us all complicit in the ongoing project of oppression. 

(As a sidenote, FFF is a great organization with a unique perspective.  They know all the ins and outs of immigration detention, the abuses, the injustices large and small, the pain and suffering, physical and mental—they know all this because they organized out of necessity because their parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins were and are being imprisoned and deported.  They aren’t much interested in bargaining X number of guestworker visas for Y dollars of border enforcement, keeping in mind the necessity of a sop to [insert influential business interest group] and mustn’t forget [insert politically powerful immigrant community].  That all recedes in immediacy when you are trying to get a close family member out of jail before she gets deported or figuring out how to manage a family crisis brought on by some politician’s decision to use human beings as bargaining chips.  Yes, politics is messy, and yes, we need to reach consensus among a spectrum of interest groups with divergent motivations and concerns.  But from a human rights-based perspective, it is refreshing to hear people who can describe in plain moral terms the daily injustices perpetuated by the government through our existing immigration policies.  In other words, Families for Freedom kicks ass.)

Wrapping things up, I’ll mention Roberto’s recent appearance on Grit TV with Jeanvieve Williams of the U.S. Human Rights Network and Maria Muentes of FFF, discussing the deaths in detention and our national immigrant incarceration fetish more generally.  Video here.

And to all who have waited so long for comprehensive reform, I'll leave you with a conundrum.  In the clip, Maria raises a great point (I’m paraphrasing here, but pretty close to what she said):

Legalization doesn’t prevent deportation.  Most of our clients are permanent residents, but it hasn’t helped them. 

In other words, even the most migrant-friendly comprehensive reform bill proposed so far in the past several years only begins to scratch the surface of the problems of unequal rights, exploitation, and repression.  We have a very long way to go.

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This page contains a single entry by David Bennion published on June 6, 2008 12:40 AM.

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