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Officials Hid Truth About Immigrant Deaths in Jail

by Nina Bernstein

Silence has long shrouded the men and women who die in the nation's immigration jails. For years, they went uncounted and unnamed in the public record. Even in 2008, when The New York Times obtained and published a federal government list of such deaths, few facts were available about who these people were and how they died.

Nery Romero, who died in immigration detention in 2007. (New York Times photo) But behind the scenes, it is now clear, the deaths had already generated thousands of pages of government documents, including scathing investigative reports that were kept under wraps, and a trail of confidential memos and BlackBerry messages that show officials working to stymie outside inquiry.

The documents, obtained over recent months by The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, concern most of the 107 deaths in detention counted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement since October 2003, after the agency was created within the Department of Homeland Security.

The Obama administration has vowed to overhaul immigration detention, a haphazard network of privately run jails, federal centers and county cells where the government holds noncitizens while it tries to deport them.

But as the administration moves to increase oversight within the agency, the documents show how officials - some still in key positions - used their role as overseers to cover up evidence of mistreatment, deflect scrutiny by the news media or prepare exculpatory public statements after gathering facts that pointed to substandard care or abuse.

As one man lay dying of head injuries suffered in a New Jersey immigration jail in 2007, for example, a spokesman for the federal agency told The Times that he could learn nothing about the case from government authorities. In fact, the records show, the spokesman had alerted those officials to the reporter's inquiry, and they conferred at length about sending the man back to Africa to avoid embarrassing publicity.

In another case that year, investigators from the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that unbearable, untreated pain had been a significant factor in the suicide of a 22-year-old detainee at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, and that the medical unit was so poorly run that other detainees were at risk.

The investigation found that jail medical personnel had falsified a medication log to show that the detainee, a Salvadoran named Nery Romero, had been given Motrin. The fake entry was easy to detect: When the drug was supposedly administered, Mr. Romero was already dead.

Yet those findings were never disclosed to the public or to Mr. Romero's relatives on Long Island, who had accused the jail of abruptly depriving him of his prescription painkiller for a broken leg. And an agency supervisor wrote that because other jails were "finicky" about accepting detainees with known medical problems like Mr. Romero's, such people would continue to be placed at the Bergen jail as "a last resort."

In a recent interview, Benjamin Feldman, a spokesman for the jail, which housed 1,503 immigration detainees last year, would not say whether any changes had been made since the death.

In February 2007, in the case of the dying African man, the immigration agency's spokesman for the Northeast, Michael Gilhooly, rebuffed a Times reporter's questions about the detainee, who had suffered a skull fracture at the privately run Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. Mr. Gilhooly said that without a full name and alien registration number for the man, he could not check on the case.

But, records show, he had already filed a report warning top managers at the federal agency about the reporter's interest and sharing information about the injured man, a Guinean tailor named Boubacar Bah. Mr. Bah, 52, had been left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours before an ambulance was called.

While he lay in the hospital in a coma after emergency brain surgery, 10 agency managers in Washington and Newark conferred by telephone and e-mail about how to avoid the cost of his care and the likelihood of "increased scrutiny and/or media exposure," according to a memo summarizing the discussion.

One option they explored was sending the dying man to Guinea, despite an e-mail message from the supervising deportation officer, who wrote, "I don't condone removal in his present state as he has a catheter" and was unconscious. Another idea was renewing Mr. Bah's canceled work permit in hopes of tapping into Medicaid or disability benefits.

Eventually, faced with paying $10,000 a month for nursing home care, officials settled on a third course: "humanitarian release" to cousins in New York who had protested that they had no way to care for him. But days before the planned release, Mr. Bah died.

Among the participants in the conferences was Nina Dozoretz, a longtime manager in the agency's Division of Immigration Health Services who had won an award for cutting detainee health care costs. Later she was vice president of the Nakamoto Group, a company hired by the Bush administration to monitor detention. The Obama administration recently rehired her to lead its overhaul of detainee health care.

Asked about the conference call on Mr. Bah, Ms. Dozoretz said: "How many years ago was that? I don't recall all the specifics if indeed there was a call." She added, "I advise you to contact our public affairs office." Mr. Gilhooly, the spokesman who had said he had no information on the case, would not comment.

On the day after Mr. Bah's death in May 2007, Scott Weber, director of the Newark field office of the immigration enforcement agency, recommended in a memo that the agency take the unusual step of paying to send the body to Guinea for burial, to prevent his widow from showing up in the United States for a funeral and drawing news coverage.

Mr. Weber wrote that he believed the agency had handled Mr. Bah's case appropriately. "However," he added, "I also don't want to stir up any media interest where none is warranted." Helping to bury Mr. Bah overseas, he wrote, "will go a long way to putting this matter to rest."

In the agency's confidential files was a jail video showing Mr. Bah face down in the medical unit, hands cuffed behind his back, just before medical personnel sent him to a disciplinary cell. The tape shows him crying out repeatedly in his native Fulani, "Help, they are killing me!"

Almost a year after his death, the agency quietly closed the case without action. But Mr. Bah's name had shown up on the first list of detention fatalities, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and on May 5, 2008, his death was the subject of a front-page article in The Times.

Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an interview that the newly disclosed records represented the past, and that the agency's new leaders were committed to transparency and greater oversight, including prompt public disclosure and investigation of every death, and more attention to detainee care in a better-managed system.

But the most recent documents show that the culture of secrecy has endured. And the past cover-ups underscore what some of the agency's own employees say is a central flaw in the proposed overhaul: a reliance on the agency to oversee itself.

"Because ICE investigates itself there is no transparency and there is no reform or improvement," Chris Crane, a vice president in the union that represents employees of the agency's detention and removal operations, told a Congressional subcommittee on Dec. 10.

The agency has kept a database of detention fatalities at least since December 2005, when a National Public Radio investigation spurred a Congressional inquiry. In 2006, the agency issued standard procedures for all such deaths to be reported in detail to headquarters.

But internal documents suggest that officials were intensely concerned with controlling public information. In April 2007, Marc Raimondi, then an agency spokesman, warned top managers that a Washington Post reporter had asked about a list of 19 deaths that the civil liberties union had compiled, and about a dying man whose penile cancer had spread after going undiagnosed in detention, despite numerous medical requests for a biopsy.

"These are quite horrible medical stories," Mr. Raimondi wrote, "and I think we'll need to have a pretty strong response to keep this from becoming a very damaging national story that takes on long legs."

That response was an all-out defense of detainee medical care over several months, including statistics that appeared to show that mortality rates in detention were declining, and were low compared with death rates in prisons.

Experts in detention health care called the comparison misleading; it also came to light that the agency was undercounting the number of detention deaths, as well as discharging some detainees shortly before they died. In August, litigation by the civil liberties union prompted the Obama administration to disclose that more than one in 10 immigrant detention deaths had been overlooked and omitted from a list submitted to Congress last year.

Two of those deaths had occurred in Arizona, in 2004 and 2007, at the Eloy Detention Center, run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Eloy had nine known fatalities - more than any other immigration jail under contract to the federal government. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement was still secretive. When a reporter for The Arizona Republic asked about the circumstances of those deaths, an agency spokesman told him the records were unavailable.

According to records The Times obtained in December, one Eloy detainee who died, in October 2008, was Emmanuel Owusu. An ailing 62-year-old barber who had arrived from Ghana on a student visa in 1972, he had been a legal permanent resident for 33 years, mostly in Chicago. Immigration authorities detained him in 2006, based on a 1979 conviction for misdemeanor battery and retail theft.

"I am confused as to how subject came into our custody???" the Phoenix field office director, Katrina S. Kane, wrote to subordinates. "Convicted in 1979? That's a long time ago."

In response, a report on his death was revised to refer to Mr. Owusu's "lengthy criminal history ranging from 1977 to 1998." It did not note that except for the battery conviction, that history consisted mostly of shoplifting offenses.

A diabetic with high blood pressure, he had been detained for two years at Eloy while he battled deportation. He died of a heart ailment weeks after his last appeal was dismissed.

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