Medical Mistreatment Alleged; Federal Agency Denies Claims
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; A02
Three detainees died within weeks of one another while in federal immigration custody, adding to a toll of more than 60 who perished in recent years and fueling complaints of medical maltreatment from civil rights advocates.
The dead were a pregnant Mexican woman who lost consciousness at a facility in El Paso, a Mexican AIDS patient whose condition steadily deteriorated in a San Pedro, Calif., prison and a Brazilian whose family implored authorities to give him medicine for his epileptic seizures in Rhode Island, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and published reports.
With the exception of the pregnant woman, Rosa Isela Contreras-Dominguez, 38, those who died were illegal immigrants being processed for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a Department of Homeland Security division known as ICE. The two others were identified as Edmar Alves Araujo, 34, of Brazil and Victoria Arellano, 23, of Mexico.
An ICE spokesman, Marc Raimondi, acknowledged the deaths and called the demise of any detainee “a sad occurrence.” He said his agency cannot be held responsible for the deaths of Contreras-Dominguez and Araujo. He declined to comment about the Arellano case.
ICE spends more than $98 million a year to provide “humane and safe detention environments” to nearly 30,000 detainees, Raimondi said.
A December report by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security concluded that the detention system is generally well run but noted that four of the five facilities it studied had “instances of non-compliance” regarding health care, “including timely initial and responsive medical care.”
At least 62 people have died in ICE custody since 2004, immigration officials said. Scores of others have taken ill, some complaining of life-threatening ailments such as cancer and gangrene infections that went untreated. The inspector general is investigating two detainee deaths, in New Mexico and Minnesota.
In recent months, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of detainees in California, naming ICE and the Division of Immigrant Health Services, which provides care to detainees, among the defendants.
“We’ve been saying for a long time now that we have serious concerns about the medical care provided to individuals in detention,” said Tom Jawetz, a staff lawyer for the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
“It’s been a closed system for far too long. People are going to continue to die unless changes are made,” Jawetz said.
Arellano, a transgender person whose given name was Victor, was the first to die, on July 20. She was detained in May for entering the country illegally for a second time.
During detention in San Pedro, attorneys said, her AIDS treatment lapsed. As she vomited blood, fellow inmates cared for her in vain. She was eventually taken to a San Pedro hospital and died while shackled to a bed, an attorney for the family said.
Contreras, a legal resident from Juarez, Mexico, died about a week after entering ICE custody in El Paso on Aug. 1. She was seized for deportation after serving an 18-month prison sentence for bringing 65 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Raimondi said Contreras, who was seven weeks pregnant, was taken to an emergency room immediately after notifying the medical staff that she suffered from blood clotting. Later, after complaining of pain in her leg, she was taken to a hospital, where she died.
Araujo died shortly after being taken into federal custody on Aug. 7. His sister, Irene, said she tried to give his medication for seizures to Woonsocket, R.I., police who detained him for a traffic violation but they refused to accept it.
Raimondi said ICE officials called emergency medical technicians after Araujo showed signs of distress shortly after they detained him.