Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had no idea how many immigration detainees had died on its watch. Yes, you read that right. In 2009, DHS had simply lost track of the number of immigrants who had died in the detention centers that it operates. It wasn’t until the ACLU brought a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act that the government finally launched an investigation to uncover the real death toll.
Felix Franklin Rodriguez-Torres – a man who died in DHS custody – was forgotten by the government until his name emerged in documents obtained by the ACLU in the lawsuit. Once the death was exposed, New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein reconstructed the tragic story: “By the time the ailing detainee was taken to the emergency room at Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix, on Dec. 27, 2006, he had a mass in his neck that had ‘tripled in size’ and obstructed his breathing, according to a government accounting form summarizing his care. Too far gone for chemotherapy, he was soon placed on life support, and he died when it was disconnected.”
A bill approved this morning by the House Judiciary Committee would ensure that deaths in custody no longer slip through the cracks. The crux of the bill – the Death in Custody Reporting Act – is simple: when someone dies in law enforcement custody, including behind the closed doors of a prison or detention facility, the death must be reported to the United States attorney general, and the attorney general must study such deaths to prevent more from happening. States that fail to comply with the reporting requirements will have their federal criminal justice funding reduced. The bill’s coverage extends to the 2.3 million inmates incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons and the 400,000 immigrants locked up in detention centers each year. More than 120 immigrants have died in the government’s custody since late 2003.
It’s a small step to be sure. The bill won’t even begin to solve the litany of human rights abuses – everything from solitary confinement to brutal beatings to sexual abuse – that haunt prisons, jails and immigration detention centers. But the law is long overdue. After all, citizens in a democracy shouldn’t have to sue the government just to find out who’s dying in their jails.