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Shining a Light on In-Custody Deaths

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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January 28, 2009

(Originally posted on DailyKos.)

The New York Times today reported the latest death of a person in immigrant detention. Guido R. Newbrough, 48, was a construction worker born in Germany but who lived in the United States for the last 42 years while sporting a “Raised American” tattoo on his shoulder. Newbrough died Nov. 27 in a Virginia hospital after being detained for 11 months at the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Va. According to the Times, he died of endocarditis, caused by a virulent staph infection that is typically cured by antibiotics. But as Times reporter Nina Bernstein writes, his infection went untreated “despite his mounting pleas for medical care in the 10 days before his death.” His pain was so bad in the days leading up to his death, the Times reported, “that he began sobbing through the night” and took to banging on doors and screaming for help. Rather than respond to his obvious medical needs, the paper reported, prison guards threw him to the floor, dragged him away, and locked him in an isolated cell.

Newbrough’s death and the treatment he reportedly received at Piedmont are tragic in their own right. But what makes this story even worse is that another immigration detainee died at that very same facility two years earlier. And while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials were able to conclude then that “[d]etainee health care is in jeopardy” at the facility, it is unclear what steps—if any—were taken to fix the dangerous health care deficiencies.

The ICE report (PDF) that is so critical of health care at the Piedmont facility was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request (PDF) by ACLU National Prison Project lawyer Tom Jawetz. That report was produced in the aftermath of the Dec. 2006 death of Abdoulai Sall, 50, a Guinea native who died while in detention after his liver failed over the course of several weeks. Sall’s death prompted a review of medical care at Piedmont by ICE, which concluded that “This facility has failed on multiple levels to perform basic supervision and provide for the safety and welfare of ICE detainees. The medical health care unit does not meet minimum ICE standards.” But ICE never made that report public, and it likely would never have seen the light of day had the ACLU not sought out the report. Instead, ICE officials told its public affairs staff to formulate a public response (PDF) that made it appear as though ICE officials did everything they could to care for and revive Sall is the final moments of his life.

What the documents show is that ICE officials were well aware of the horrendous medical conditions at Piedmont and the facility’s inability to adequately care for detainees with serious medical needs. Despite this knowledge, it does not appear that immigration officials did much of substance to ensure that future detainees were protected from a facility where their health care would be “in jeopardy” — and Newbrough bore the fatal brunt of this failure.

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