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The Dirty Little Secret of Deaths in Detention

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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April 3, 2009

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

In today’s New York Times, reporter Nina Bernstein authors a compelling narrative about Ahmad Tanveer, a Pakistani New Yorker whose 2005 death was only publicly revealed today — nearly four years after he passed away in anonymity at the Monmouth County Correctional Facility in Freehold, N.J.. Despite efforts by a number of news organizations and groups like the ACLU to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release any and all information in their possession about every detainee who has died in their custody, Tanveer’s case was not uncovered until the ACLU sued for information, and the Times diligently pushed hard for the truth. As Bernstein writes in her piece today, Tanveer’s case “underscores the secrecy and lack of legal accountability that continue to shield [our nation’s immigration detention] system from independent oversight.”

The Times’ story today is the direct result of thousands of documents obtained by the ACLU from ICE and other Department of Homeland Security entities through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in June 2007, and a subsequent lawsuit filed one year later. Tom Jawetz, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, has spent months poring through the documents and analyzing what they reveal — including Tanveer’s previously unknown death. We worked with Bernstein to cultivate this story, which includes some very strong original reporting that shows how it is that the death of a man in the custody of the U.S. government could so easily slip through the cracks. For years, ICE has been allowed to create a makeshift system of immigration detention centers across the country with little to no oversight, and no mandate for accountability or transparency. The result: hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year are thrown into detention facilities where they live for weeks, months and in some cases even years on end with little contact with the outside world. They have no access to adequate medical care, even in the face of life or death emergencies.

Among the documents that Bernstein references in her story and which were obtained by the ACLU is a two-page handwritten letter from one of Tanveer’s fellow detainees who pleads for an investigation into the death. The letter documents how Tanveer complained about severe chest pain to an officer who made him wait for two hours before a nurse checked his blood pressure and called an ambulance. By then it was too late: Tanveer died upon arrival at the emergency room.

A second document obtained by the ACLU, a memo from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General which was drafted about a month after Tanveer’s death, refers Tanveer’s case to ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility. The memo makes clear that ICE was under no obligation to report back to the OIG any of its findings. No investigative report by ICE has yet been produced — maybe someone should have required a response.

The callousness with which our government’s officials have too often treated the deaths of immigrant detainees in their custody is nothing short of a national disgrace. But at long last, a full picture of the failings of our government to ensure adequate medical care and provide necessary oversight is finally beginning to come into focus.

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