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A Step in the Right Direction: Death In Custody Reporting Act to be Voted on in the House

Sandhya Bathija,
Washington Legislative Office
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September 20, 2011

Sandra M. Kenley died in an immigration detention facility after spending seven weeks asking for blood pressure medicine she never received.

Young Sook Kim, a Korean woman being held in an immigration detention facility, pleaded for medical care for weeks before she was finally taken to the hospital — after her eyes turned yellow. She died of pancreatic cancer the next day.

And 22-year-old Nery Romero committed suicide while in an immigration detention center in New Jersey. Never receiving medication for his broken leg, he could no longer bear the pain.

With the help of the ACLU and documents we obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation, Nina Bernstein of The New York Times showcased a huge problem in our country’s immigration detention system: the failure of law enforcement officials to provide adequate medical treatment to immigration detainees and their efforts to hide the truth behind the causes of these deaths in order to avoid public scrutiny.

Part of the problem is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not kept an accurate record of who has died while in custody. Prompted by revelations from the ACLU’s FOIA documents, the Obama administration in 2009 admitted that one in 10 deaths in immigration detention had been left off an official list of detainee fatalities issued to Congress in March 2009.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), which could be voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives as early as today, will hopefully change that. The Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), will require state and federal authorities to promptly report all deaths of individuals in law enforcement custody to the U.S. attorney general. The reports must provide details of the detainee deaths in a timely fashion. The legislation also states that government authorities that fail to report deaths in custody could be penalized with a hefty fine.

The bill also requires that within two years of its enactment, the attorney general must produce a study synthesizing the individual reports in order to reduce the number of deaths and to “examine the relationship, if any, between the number of such deaths and the actions of management” who operate detention facilities.

“Immigration detention facilities have never been required by law to report detainee deaths,” said Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel. “This bipartisan measure requiring state and federal authorities to be accountable to the public will not only provide much-needed transparency, but also could shed light on unsafe detention practices and conditions.”

The Death in Custody Reporting Act will apply to the 400,000 immigrants locked up in detention centers each year as well as the 2.3 million inmates incarcerated in jails and prisons.

“With few other methods to oversee conditions in prisons and jails in this country, the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act provides a simple means of monitoring the number of deaths that occur when a person is in federal or state custody,” said ACLU senior legislative counsel Jesselyn McCurdy.

If passed in the House, the ACLU plans to continue to push for the Senate to move forward with the bill. Though the measure doesn’t address many of the other issues faced by individuals in custody — the problems of solitary confinement, brutal beatings or sexual abuse — it will hopefully be a start to improving conditions for all detainees.

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