Revolution #193, February 21, 2010

The Cruel Death of Boubacar Bah

Documents released to the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act, regarding detainee deaths in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, have recently revealed further information about the death of Boubacar Bah, reported on November 15, 2009 in Revolution #183. "Conditions in ICE Detention Centers... A Death Sentence for Over 100 Immigrants." The documents provide a shocking glimpse into the mindset and commonplace brutality of immigrant detention centers. In reading the documents, it is clear ICE's concern is with covering up and avoiding public knowledge of what goes on in the detention centers, which are inhumane and cause extreme suffering of those detained..

After Boubacar Bah fell in the bathroom of the Elizabeth Detention Center, an immigration jail in New Jersey, in February 2007, he began vomiting and screaming and clutching at the guards. Instead of recognizing what medical experts said were "textbook signs of intracranial bleeding" medical personnel had him thrown into isolation for "acting out." After 15 hours, Mr. Bah was transported in a coma to the hospital where he was rushed into emergency brain surgery. But it was too late and he remained in a vegetative state until he died—with a detention center guard stationed outside his door.

Punishment—and in some cases death—instead of treatment for a medical condition emerges as a pattern seen again and again in documents or personal accounts of medical treatment in detention centers. The patient is accused of "faking it," often brutalized by guards, slapped into restraints and thrown into isolation for "observation." Medications are routinely denied or dosages cut to save costs. One document listed the amount of money ICE saved by denying medication for HIV, tuberculosis, hypertension, diabetes, paranoid schizophrenia and other serious chronic diseases. Doctors who have examined a patient and ordered further treatment or tests can be overruled by off-site nurses who don't have access to the full medical chart, but work for ICE. The "medical mission" of ICE is "treatment pending deportation" and medical personnel are trained to view medical care as a "favor" that the immigrant would not receive in their home country.

As former Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, Michael Chertoff, put it in an interview in the New York Times in August 2008, when asked about the need for mandatory standards for health care in immigration detention: "We want to provide good care but we're not trying to create a health care system for people. The idea actually is to move people out very quickly and deport them back home." If you combine that with ICE's record of outrageous and cruel neglect of medical care, what results is at least a de facto (in fact, if not in official policy) process of pressuring detainees to give up their hearing before a judge and sign voluntary departure forms in order to get medical care.

Typically, the public is only informed of a detainee death or suicide due to the efforts of the victim's companion detainees who contact the family or the lawyer. A detainee, distraught over Mr. Bah's treatment, called an immigration lawyer. The lawyer contacted the New York Times, which called ICE public affairs to investigate and was told that information about a detainee was not available without the alien registration number. The released documents show the public affairs officer's first duty was to stall the press—thus the lie about needing the "alien registration number." He immediately filled out a "critical incident report" to be filed in case of an emergency and transmitted to superiors that the press had called. An immediate flurry of damage control documentation and urgent e-mail "strategy sessions" was triggered.

It is instructive to see how the documents are progressively cleansed of all evidence of the culpability of the ICE officials and medical personnel and guards at the detention center. In the original report about Boubacar Bah's treatment, an ICE official told the warden at the Elizabeth facility that there had been a series of obvious errors and that the facility would soon be inspected by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). But by the time of Mr. Bah's death, ICE documents stated he had died of an unfortunate accident and pre-existing conditions, through no fault of ICE personnel. The facility was never inspected.

The actual number of detainee deaths in ICE custody is a closely guarded secret. At present there have been 107 known deaths since 2003. (The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained this figure from ICE under the Freedom of Information Act). ICE previously kept no central list of deaths and is not required to report deaths to any central authority. As Chertoff cold-bloodedly commented in the same NYT interview, "whether it's a state prison, federal prison, you're going to get a certain number of deaths." In 2004, the ACLU attempted to document the number, and the press began to investigate and write about the horrific medical abuses in detention. Finally Congress demanded from ICE a list of deaths.

In August 2009, the Obama administration refused a petition by lawyers and former inmates of immigrant detention to make legally enforceable rules against mistreatment of detainees, including medical mistreatment. The administration argued that "rule-making would be laborious, time-consuming and less flexible" than an overhaul of the system. It was argued that a problem with the system was that ICE was not exercising its oversight functions. In October it was announced that the sprawling detention system, made up of 400 jails across the country, some county-owned and others privately owned, would be further centralized under ICE control and oversight. The released documents reveal high-placed ICE officials are very aware of cases of medical abuse and brutality and use their oversight and control to cleanse the files of traces of such information and to protect the detention centers from the media.

Immigrant deaths in detention have been a closely guarded secret that has slowly begun to reach the public, despite the efforts of ICE to distort the circumstances and details. Since 2003, the year ICE was put under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, the recorded number of deaths is now 107, according to figures obtained from ICE. But given that ICE has a record of covering up and minimizing medical neglect and abuse, the actual number may be higher. And these figures—as critics of ICE have pointed out—do not include people released just before they die so as not to be included in the tally of people who died in ICE detention.

The person named by Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, to head up an overhaul of ICE detention policies quit and released a report quite critical of the detention system. Since that time, the New York Times reported a new director has been appointed, Nina Dozoretz. Her qualifications are very revealing: she has a long-time career as a public health official in ICE and has received awards for her cost-cutting efforts in the area of immigrant health. She was an active participant in the "strategy sessions" over the best way to handle press inquiries into the death of Boubacar Bah.

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Boubacar Bah came to the United States many years ago from Guinea to work as a tailor. He was accused of overstaying a tourist visa. For that, he died a tortuous, unnecessary death in a cruel ICE detention center. His death is emblematic of the barbaric, inhumane treatment of immigrants in ICE custody. This situation is a shameful outrage, and a crime against humanity that must be exposed, opposed, and resisted.

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