Published on
the Las Vegas Sun

Too Much Secrecy

Information on deaths of immigration detainees should be public


The deaths of U.S. immigration detainees are lost in a patchwork process in which they can be dead for days or even weeks before their families are notified.

The New York Times reports that detention for immigration violations is administered through a tangle of federal detention centers, county jails and privately run prisons. And no government entity is required to report or investigate detainees' deaths.

In one horrific example, Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor, died in May 2007, four months after he collapsed in a bathroom and his head hit the floor, the Times reports.

Bah, a native of Guinea who had overstayed a tourist visa, was detained at a New Jersey facility privately run by the Corrections Corp. of America. After his collapse, Bah was restrained on the floor with handcuffs and shackles as he cried and vomited. He was then placed in a solitary confinement cell where he remained - incoherent and foaming at the mouth - for 14 hours.

Detention officials then called 911 and Bah was taken to a hospital, where an examination showed he had a fractured skull and was hemorrhaging in several areas of his brain. He underwent surgery but never regained consciousness.

A friend told Bah's family of his fall four days after it happened. Detention center officials refused to give Bah's relatives the records of his treatment, which had been labeled "proprietary information."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials review cases of detainee deaths internally but are not required to investigate them or report them to the public.

Members of Congress have said such a system gives the agency too much discretion and allows mistreatment to go unreported. Legislation that has passed in the House, but is stalled in the Senate, would require states that receive federal law enforcement funding to report detainees' deaths to their attorney general.

But even that is not enough. That a man can lie shackled on the floor in his own vomit without medical assistance is beyond disgraceful. Detainees are people and deserve to be treated humanely.

© Las Vegas Sun, 2008

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