The Death of Richard Rust Richard Rust died last year after government agents detained him –- not in a secret detention center in Iraq, but in a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana. His death raises troubling questions about whether a pattern of medical neglect exists in the Department of Homeland Security's detention centers.
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The Death of Richard Rust

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The Death of Richard Rust


The Death of Richard Rust

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

You're about to hear the story of one immigrant who died last year in a detention center here in the United States. The evidence strongly suggests that he died after federal employees disregarded national medical standards. Richard Rust was one of hundreds of thousands of non-citizens whom the Department of Homeland Security detained last year, most on charges that they violated civil immigrations laws, not for anything to do with terrorism. They're detained in county jails or federal prisons while immigration courts decide if they can stay in this country or if they should be deported.

BLOCK: NPR has spent months investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Richard Rust. As you're about to hear, eight eyewitnesses say that prison guards ignored their pleas to help Rust. An expert in prison health care calls the case unconscionable. You'll also hear that despite repeated requests, federal officials have refused to give NPR information that might help show if Rust's death is an isolated case or part of a pattern of medical neglect. Our investigation has uncovered the stories of other detainees who died in similar circumstances to Richard Rust. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.


Detainees who knew him say Richard Rust was a popular man in their prison. Homeland Security locked him up last year with almost a thousand other immigrants in the middle of Louisiana. They call it Oakdale Federal Detention Center. It's surrounded by fences with electronic sensors. There are thick forests on three sides. The men say Rust was a gentle detainee and a loyal friend, so they were shocked when they saw what happened to him just after he turned 34 years old.

Mr. KERION DAWKINS (Jamaican Detainee): Richard Rust, he's a kind person. OK? He got a good harmony about him.

ZWERDLING: That's Kerion Dawkins. Homeland Security deported him back to Jamaica late last year. He says Richard Rust never cursed, never got into fights. He was always trying to help people.

Mr. DAWKINS: If you and the next person has a problem, he'll sit down and try to help work it out. He'll be a counselor or a judge if it's a dispute.

ZWERDLING: Do you mind if I point something out?

Mr. DAWKINS: Sure.

ZWERDLING: You're talking about him in the present these as though he's still alive.

Mr. DAWKINS: You know, sometime I walk down the street--so sometimes from a distance, I'll see him. And I look good. I'll be like, `No, that ain't him, you know.' I know that ain't him because he passed away in my hands.

ZWERDLING: Richard Rust was born in Jamaica. He moved to Brooklyn legally to live with his father and stepmother. Then back in the early 1990s, he committed a terrible crime. Rust was in his early 20s then, and he started having sex with a relative when she was barely 11 years old. He went to prison for three months for statutory rape. Three women in the family told me that Rust deserved to be punished, but they all say that was more than a decade ago and when he got out of prison he was a new man. He got a job as an electrician. He and his girlfriend raised two children. They all say Richard was a good father.

But under federal immigration laws, none of that matters. The laws say if you're not a citizen and you've ever committed one of a wide range of crimes, then the government must eventually detain and deport you. They do it even if you committed the crime years ago and served your sentence, just like Richard Rust. So one day early last year, federal agents knocked on his door at about 5 AM. Rust's girlfriend says they handcuffed him in front of their children and they shipped him to Oakdale while they tried to deport him. Detainees say they'll never forget the day Rust died.

Mr. MOHAMMAD BANDJAN: It was a weekend, I think Saturday.

Mr. PRINCE BROWN(ph): It was a weekend on a Saturday.

Mr. GEORGE BROWN(ph): It was on a weekend during the late afternoon.

ZWERDLING: We tracked down eight immigrants who say they witnessed all or part of what happened to Richard Rust. These men are scattered across two continents now, thousands of miles apart, but they all tell the same basic story. You're going to hear it from four of them. There is Mohammad Bandjan from Sierra Leone; then Prince Brown and George Brown, they're not related but they're both from Jamaica; and you'll hear Kerion Dawkins from Jamaica, too.

Mr. P. BROWN: It was a fair day. It was a very hot day.

Mr. G. BROWN: The day that Mr. Rust passed away was a hot, humid day.

Mr. BANDJAN: The weather was like 85.

Mr. G. BROWN: The weather was hot, hot, Louisiana hot. You know what I mean?

ZWERDLING: It's May 29th, it's late in the day and it's the weekend. So the guards let detainees spill out of their cells and go to the recreation area. Some start watching a prison soccer match; others play dominoes. They say Richard Rust shoots some baskets, but then he tells a friend, `I'm thirsty. I'm going to get some water over in the barbershop.' The barbershop's just a few yards away inside the rec center.

Mr. DAWKINS: He came in, but when he came in he was drenching with sweat.

ZWERDLING: That's Kerion Dawkins again. He and another detainee are working as prison barbers. He's cutting somebody's hair when Rust walks in.

Mr. DAWKINS: And then he say--(makes gasping sounds)--`I can't breathe.' And at the same time, his whole weight just fell in my hands. His head bumped in my chest and then I pushed my right hand on his chest to catch his body so his face doesn't slide down my leg and hit the floor. So I'm saying, `Yo, Rich. Yo, wake up. You, wake up. Yo, Rich.'

ZWERDLING: Dawkins shouts to the other barber, `Run! Find Officer Taylor! He's supposed to be on duty in the rec area today.'

Mr. DAWKINS: He say `Yo, where he at?' I say, `Yo, he's in the field. Go call Taylor. He's over there by the soccer field, way in the back.'

Mr. G. BROWN: The barber came running out of the rec center. He was running, flailing his hands and he was yelling.

Mr. BANDJAN: He said, `Call the police. Richard pass out.'

Mr. G. BROWN: `There's a guy in the rec center dying. He's having a heart attack.' So we all just stopped what we're doin' and went over there to see if we could help.

ZWERDLING: Homeland Security's detention centers and federal prisons issue detailed medical standards that their employees are supposed to follow. The standards declare that staff should respond to medical emergencies, quote, "within a four-minute response time," unquote. Prince Brown and other detainees say they don't see anybody on Oakdale's staff rush to help Richard Rust within four minutes. Brown says worried immigrants are already crowding outside the rec center by the time the head officer on duty shows up. That's Officer Taylor.

Mr. P. BROWN: Then what's so messed up, when I saw him coming, he wasn't running like it's an emergency. You know, like, when somebody dying, you gonna be running. He wasn't running.

ZWERDLING: How long after you first saw the crowd gathering--how long after that did Officer Taylor come walking toward the rec center?

Mr. P. BROWN: At least 10 to 12 minutes.

ZWERDLING: Could it be five, six?

Mr. P. BROWN: No, more than that.

ZWERDLING: Kerion Dawkins disagrees. He thinks Officer Taylor gets to the barbershop faster than that. But Dawkins says in any case, once Taylor arrives, he doesn't apply lifesaving measures as medical standards say he should. Dawkins says Taylor lowers his ear to Richard Rust's mouth; Rust isn't breathing. The officer feels his wrists; There's no pulse.

Did you ever see Taylor try to give CPR or mouth-to-mouth?

Mr. DAWKINS: No, I did not. No, I did not.

Mr. BANDJAN: Well, everybody just gets frustrated out of the situation. Some of them is screaming and calling, `Where is the doctor? Where is the doctor?'

ZWERDLING: We've asked the officials who run Oakdale to give their version of events; they've refused. They did send us an e-mail, which makes two striking points. It says, `The prison has seven staff members in its medical unit, including doctors and nurses and emergency technicians.' The e-mail also says the prison has an automatic defibrillator; that's one of those machines that can restart somebody's heart. But detainees say Richard Rust has been lying on the floor for about 15 minutes now and nobody from the medical unit has showed up. And they say a few more guards have come to the barbershop, but none of them has brought the defibrillator to try to revive him. Dawkins says they're just standing around.

Mr. DAWKINS: Looking at me like, `What can we do?' I say, `Yo, what the (censored), man, yo. You know, come help the guy. What the (censored)? You're just standing there, you know, come help him. Do what y'all are supposed to do.'

Mr. BANDJAN: It seems like they don't care.

Mr. P. BROWN: The mood was getting very rowdy.

Mr. G. BROWN: Guys were spitting through the fence. They were kicking over the garbage cans.

Mr. P. BROWN: They was, like, shouting, `What the (censored) is taking these people so long to respond?'

Mr. G. BROWN: That was the main question, was: `Where the (censored) is the medical staff at when you need them around here?' There was none.

ZWERDLING: The detainees say now the guards start to take action. But they're not trying to revive Richard Rush; they're shooing detainees away.

Mr. P. BROWN: They were saying, `Yo, we got an emergency. Move! Move! You bunch of immigrants, get out of the (censored) way.' That's what made the situation worse than it should have been.

Mr. G. BROWN: Just the way that they talk to you at time, you know. `Hey, man, time to go back to that country you came from, you know.'

Mr. P. BROWN: The way they speak to you, call you, boy.

Mr. G. BROWN: `Hey, back to that banana boat, baby. Back to that banana boat where you came from,' you know.

ZWERDLING: Detainees say at this point, Richard Rust has been lying on the barbershop floor for at least 20 minutes. They say you can stroll here from the medical office in a couple minutes or less, but the nurse finally shows up only now, and they don't see her apply CPR, either. And they have to wait even longer for the ambulance. Oakdale Community Hospital is three and a half miles away down a few small-town roads. When the medics arrive, Prince Brown checks his watch.

Mr. P. BROWN: The ambulance came in, like, 40 minutes after the incident.

Mr. DAWKINS: Forty-five minutes, give or take five minutes. I was there.

ZWERDLING: The medics wheel Rust away on a gurney. The hospital's records show that doctors call a code blue when the ambulance brings him in, they use shock paddles to try to revive him, but Richard Rust is declared dead at 7:29 PM, May 29th, 2004.

We can't get anybody in the federal government to talk about this case. A spokesman at Homeland Security told me they couldn't talk about it unless I gave them a notarized letter of permission from Rust's family. They said they want to protect Rust's medical privacy. But when I sent them notarized permission, they still wouldn't talk about the Rust case. And this time, a spokesman said, `Homeland Security can't talk about Rust because Oakdale is actually managed by the Bureau of Prisons. Call them.' So I called the Bureau of Prisons, but a spokeswoman named Traci Billingsley wouldn't talk about the Rust case, either. Of course, the official who knows most about what happened at Oakdale is the federal warden who runs it. We called Joseph Young and his staff more than a dozen times. We sent them e-mails. We sent them letters. A prison spokesman named Sean Marler responded with this voice mail.

Mr. SEAN MARLER (Spokesman, Oakdale Federal Detention Center): I did speak with--based on your request, did speak with the warden. But with regards to an interview at the institution and a tour, that has been denied by the warden.

ZWERDLING: But he added, `If you put your questions in writing, we'll answer then in writing.'

So I sent a list of more than 50 detailed questions; they answered three of them. Oakdale's reply states, in part, `It is the mission of a federal detention center to provide a safe, humane and secure location where Homeland Security can put immigrant detainees.' And Oakdale's letter declares that `After Rust was found unconscious, staff and medical personnel responded immediately and CPR was administered until the responding ambulance arrived.' I talked to one of the top doctors in America who investigate health care in prisons. He says the case of Richard Rust troubles him.

Dr. ROBERT GREIFINGER (Health Care Investigator): It's wrong. That doesn't meet the standard of care. It's unconscionable, in my opinion.

ZWERDLING: That's Dr. Robert Greifinger. He used to be chief medical officer for the prisons on New York state. He's investigated prisons across the country for the Justice Department and local governments. Greifinger says everybody in the medial profession has known for decades, every prison has known for decades, when somebody's heart stops beating, you immediately start CPR and other emergency measures and you keep doing them until a doctor has tried everything possible and declares the person is dead. Greifinger says the story of Richard Rust raises serious questions.

Dr. GREIFINGER: That it was more than negligence, that it was what in legal terms in called deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. If there's deliberate indifference, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

ZWERDLING: If these allegations are true, did the staff at the Oakdale Federal Detention Center kill Richard Rust?

Dr. GREIFINGER: If those facts are true, their inaction in the face of this life-threatening condition could have been a cause of his death.

ZWERDLING: We've spent months investigating how Richard Rust died and there's still a lingering question: Is the story of Richard Rust a fluke, or does it reflect a bigger problem that affects detainees across the country?

As we told you earlier, we don't know how many immigrants have died in detention because the staff neglected to help them. But here's what we have been able to learn. Less than three months after Rust died, another detainee died in the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama. His name was Nelson Enriquez. More than 30 detainees there wrote a letter of protest because they charged it took one hour for the jail's medical staff to help him after he collapsed.

Less than three months after that, a detainee named Daniel Zarou died at the Wicomico County jail in Maryland. Two detainees who say they were with him told me that he complained one night he was having trouble breathing. They say he was so weak he couldn't leave his cell for dinner. But the way they tell it, the head officer on duty brushed it off and said, `The medical unit's closed tonight. It'll have to wait till morning. Take your pills.' Next morning, they found Zarou dead on his bunk. One of those detainees was Leroy Shand. I tracked him down in Jamaica after Homeland Security deported him. He says all the detainees felt shaken.

Mr. LEROY SHAND: Because it could have happened to anybody. See, after he died, everybody was mad because it woke us up to the fact that anyone of us could be in our cell and get sick and the guards ignore us.

ZWERDLING: Spokesmen at Homeland Security wouldn't talk to us about those cases just as they wouldn't talk about Richard Rust. Officials at the jails wouldn't give interviews, either. The warden at Wicomico County jail in Maryland has issued a written statement. He said, `The detainee's death was tragic, but the jail staff responded appropriately.'

And there's another recent case. Only one day after that detainee died in Maryland, another detainee died in Florida. The man was an 81-year-old minister from Haiti. His name was Joseph Danticat. He was applying for asylum and Homeland Security locked him up while they were deciding if he could stay. Danticat was meeting with his lawyer and an immigration officer at the very moment he got sick. His lawyer, whose name is John Pratt, says he can hardly believe what happened. His elderly client started projectile vomiting right there in a tiny office in the detention center. Suddenly, Danticat slumped.

Mr. JOHN PRATT (Attorney): His hands went completely like limp. I mean, he didn't move at all and he was just laying there on the chair where he actually vomited. His head was looking up at the roof because it was leaning against a wall and his eyes were open. We were basically like in a panic mode that he could be dying.

ZWERDLING: Pratt says it was chaos. There were two guards standing right outside the office. He says he and the immigration officer yelled, `Quick, get help!' and he says the officers refused.

Mr. PRATT: Another officer--immigration officer came over and looked at him. There were people standing around him. Obviously, the other detainees were looking around. The officer and I were saying, you know, `You need to call a medic immediately and it was a sense of urgency that this man is having a major medical attack and he needs immediate medical attention.'

ZWERDLING: And did the two guards who were standing there say, `Yes, we're going to get help immediately'?

Mr. PRATT: Absolutely not. It was precisely the opposite. What they said is, `We can't do anything.'

ZWERDLING: Pratt says the guards finally relented and called for help, and the jail's medics came after about 15 minutes. The minister died at a local hospital the next day.

Most immigrants who die in detention die unnoticed except by their families, but Danticat had a famous relative here in America. She's a novelist named Edwidge Danticat, and she helped get a congressman to pressure Homeland Security to investigate. The agency hasn't released its report and officials won't talk about it, but NPR has obtained a copy and it conflicts with the lawyer's accounts. The reports says that the guards deny Pratt's claim that they resisted calling for help. The report says that Danticat died from an illness that he likely had before he got detained, so he would have died no matter what.

But the report totally ignores one of the main issues: Did the staff at Homeland Security's detention center respond properly and humanely when this elderly immigrant got sick? A lawyer named Cheryl Little says the report is a whitewash. She runs a respected group called the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. Little says over the past decade, she and her colleagues have investigated hundreds of cases where detainees have become sick and some have died because they might not have received proper medical care.

Ms. CHERYL LITTLE (Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center): I routinely hear those kinds of things, Daniel, unfortunately. It's the number-one complaint we get from detainees whenever we visit them in any of the facilities that are housed in Florida. I mean, we hear that repeated requests for medical care are often ignored, or that the care they need is simply unavailable.

ZWERDLING: Don't take Little's word for it. Lawyers at the US Justice Department investigated one jail in Florida after Little reported that the staff was ignoring immigrants' health problems. The assistant attorney general concluded that the staff's attitudes, quote, "pose a significant threat," unquote, to the inmates' health.

And that brings us back to the case of Richard Rust in Oakdale Federal Detention Center. Rust died on a Saturday evening. Sunday morning, detainees crowded into the prison chapel on simple wooden pews and they held a prayer service to remember him. Somebody held up a photo of Rust and his family; another immigrant sang. And detainees say then the guards locked all of them in their cells for at least two straight days, some say three days. Kerion Dawkins and others say the riot squads swept through the cell blocks.

Mr. DAWKINS: The riot squad was in their riot gear: knee pads, elbow pads, helmet, a shield and their baton sticks, the nightsticks.

ZWERDLING: They say guards pulled detainees out of their cells one by one and grilled them: `Was Richard Rust your friend? Do you have a problem with what happened?' George Brown says a captain unlocked his and his cell mate's door.

Mr. G BROWN: And then he looked at me and he go, `You looked pissed off, man,' and I said, `Yeah, I'm a little upset.' He said, `About what?' I said, `You know, Captain, you know, the things didn't run the way it's supposed to.' He took us out--he said, `Come here.' He took us inside a TV room and said to

us, `You know, there are places much worse than this that a guy can go to them,' and that's when I got quiet 'cause I knew what he meant by that, you know. `You play by the rules and everything's OK,' he said, which I took as `Listen, man, keep your mouth shut. Be quiet, man, and don't say nothin.' I'm not saying any more, man. That's a threat.

ZWERDLING: The detainees say every immigrant who spoke out about Richard Rust got marched off to the hole, the box. Detainees say they lock you in a tiny cell without windows. They say the warden sent more than 50 detainees to the hole for weeks. And the man who led the prayer service for Rust had to stay in the box more than three months.

But a few days after Rust died, dozens of detainees who didn't go to the hole got together and they wrote this plea to the outside world.

Mr. G. BROWN: Since our last letter, a terrible incident has taken place. Excuse me. A federal inmate passed away suffering from cardiac arrest.

ZWERDLING: George Brown and 32 other detainees signed this letter. Then just before they released it, Brown got scared they'd be punished and he scratched out his name.

Mr. G. BROWN: We are disputing the absence of procedure and the unprofessional behavior some officers portrayed who were on duty. The indifference that was portrayed by these men will not be forgotten anytime soon.

ZWERDLING: Today, Brown is out of Oakdale. His lawyer got the government to release him and he says he wants to stand up for this letter.

Mr. G. BROWN: We already know we cannot bring back Mr. Rust to us or his family, but we're asking for a thorough investigation, preferably headed by those of neutral interest. The truth must be uncovered. We may be immigrants but we are humans first.

ZWERDLING: The detainees gave that letter to an outside group that helps immigrants. It's called Families for Freedom. Then the group rewrote the letter and sent it to key government officials, including at the Department of Homeland Security. The immigrants and the activists say Homeland Security has never sent a reply. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can read the documents mentioned in Daniel Zwerdling's report and review his previous series on the abuse of immigrant detainees at our Web site,


BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.

SIEGEL: And I'm Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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