Back to News & Commentary

Government Admits to Culpability in Detainee's Death

Share This Page
April 29, 2008

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports on the case of Francisco Castañeda, a man who died in February as a result of a lack of medical care for cancer while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in San Diego. The article reported that the government admitted to some liability for Francisco’s death:

A lawyer…said Monday the admission followed a government physician’s sworn statements that she knew a biopsy was the only way to determine whether Castañeda had cancer but never authorized one – a decision that was approved by officials at the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

While it’s a rare occurrence for the government to own up to negligence, this admission should be taken with a grain of salt. Tom Jawetz, a Staff Attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project who’s currently litigating a case against ICE for inadequate medical treatment at the San Diego facility, says:

The admission of medical negligence comes just six weeks after the federal judge who reviewed Francisco’s medical records said that those medical records ‘bespeak of conduct that transcends negligence by miles.’So while it’s great that the U.S. admitted to medical negligence, that doesn’t even begin to explore the deeply disturbing treatment that Francisco was subjected to.There are still several additional claims pending against ICE and the individual doctors who tremendously failed him.

Just last year, in a Washington Post article about health care in immigration detention, the medical director for the Division of Immigration Health Services (DIHS), Tim Shack, who reviewed Francisco’s case, said: “I don’t see this as improper care. I think this is good care…It’s just unfortunate that this had a bad outcome.”

The government’s recent admission, which contradicts Shack’s statements to The Washington Post, shows the need for greater scrutiny of Shack’s other statements in that article.

Shack spoke to The Post about the case of Martin Hernandez Banderas: “I have 173 pages of records showing that he was properly monitored…He was not among the general population.He was receiving 24-hour care.”

This characterization of the care received by Banderas was grossly wrong and perhaps willfully misleading. 173 pages or 173,000, the records show Banderas complained for weeks about increasing pain and a foul odor coming from a growing wound that was turning black and oozing. But from January 11 through 15, 2007, on-site medical staff described the wound as healing, with “a normal, healthy tissue type odor” and “no sign of active infection, pus or purulence.” When Banderas was finally rushed to the hospital on January 17 – just two days later – doctors diagnosed him with a large, gangrenous ulcer in his foot and ankle and a potentially fatal bone infection that nearly cost him his leg.

In addition, DIHS’s own medical records show Banderas was in general population throughout his detention, except for a brief eight-day period when he received intravenous antibiotics in the infirmary. After those eight days, he was returned to general population for four weeks, where he was not given 24-hour care, and was actually left to change his own dressings over the weekends.

The government’s recent admission of medical negligence in Francisco’s case is literally too little, too late.

Last October, Francisco joined our attorneys from the National Prison Project on Capitol Hill to testify on the issue of medical care in immigration detention before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law. You can read his testimony, or listen to a podcast, to learn more about what he endured while detained in ICE custody.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page