ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it's able to protect the health and safety of detainees during this coronavirus pandemic, but internal ICE documents raise doubts about the care provided in the agency's detention centers. The documents reviewed by NPR reveal new details about the deaths of two immigrants during the first year of the Trump administration. Those immigrants died after being held in detention centers that are now grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks. NPR's Joel Rose is here to talk about it.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us what these documents say about the immigrant detainees who died in ICE custody.
ROSE: Right. Well, one set of documents is about the death of Carlos Mejia-Bonilla. The documents detail the sorts of investigations that happen after someone dies in ICE custody. Bonilla was a Salvadoran immigrant who was detained at the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, which has a contract to hold people for ICE. Bonilla told health care workers there that he was taking medication for multiple health conditions - diabetes, anemia, high blood pressure and cirrhosis of the liver. But they only gave him treatment for diabetes, according to these documents. And ICE's own investigation concluded that Bonilla was denied necessary care and that the care he did get was, quote, "outside the scope of safe practice," unquote, and contributed to his death.
SHAPIRO: So that's the first case, and what do the documents say about the second one?
ROSE: The second case concerns a man named Roger Rayson. He was a Jamaican man who was quite sick when he arrived at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana. He was HIV-positive and suffering from Burkitt's lymphoma, which is an aggressive but treatable form of cancer. Rayson never received chemotherapy at LaSalle, and the documents detail, really, a remarkable indifference to his suffering. He repeatedly told the staff that he was in pain. Still, the doctor in charge there did not examine him. Instead, Rayson was sent to solitary confinement for nine days and died at a hospital about a month later. ICE's review did not conclude whether his care contributed to his death, but outside doctors who've seen the documents say that care likely did.
SHAPIRO: Now, both of these men died more than two years ago, so how does their story relate to what's happening in ICE detention centers today?
ROSE: Well, there have been a lot of questions over the years about health care in ICE facilities, and the issue has become more urgent now because of the coronavirus. Detainees say that they're scared. Some are staging hunger strikes and demanding to be released. And the facilities where these two detainees were held are now facing outbreaks of coronavirus - 10 to 12 confirmed cases among detainees and staff at both facilities. At the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, four staff members have died from COVID-19. And lawyers and advocates who work with immigrants say the care has not improved at these facilities since 2017. I talked to Katherine Hawkins at the Project on Government Oversight. It's a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that obtained these documents from ICE through Freedom of Information Act requests and shared them with NPR.
KATHERINE HAWKINS: There were really serious problems before coronavirus. It was a broken system already. And unfortunately, ICE has not been responding with urgency.
SHAPIRO: And how is ICE responding to this?
ROSE: Well, ICE says it is committed to ensuring that everyone in its custody receives timely access to medical services and treatment. ICE did not comment on the health care that these men received or did not receive, but a spokesman did say, quote, "while any death in ICE custody is unfortunate, fatalities in ICE custody statistically are exceedingly rare," unquote. ICE is also releasing some detainees during the coronavirus crisis. The agency has released nearly 700 people who are considered medically vulnerable and do not pose a threat to public safety. And officials at the jail in New Jersey told me that Bonilla's death did lead to some changes there. They switched to a different health care contractor at their jail in 2018, and they built a new medical and rehab facility there.
SHAPIRO: Just briefly, how many COVID-19 cases are there in ICE detention facilities that we know of right now?
ROSE: According to the latest numbers from ICE, there are 425 positive coronavirus cases nationwide. But keep in mind that ICE has only tested a small fraction of the detainees that it's holding - less than 3% of more than 30,000 people in detention. So immigrant advocates think that the real number of cases is likely much higher, and they say that's a threat not only to the detainees and the staff but potentially to surrounding communities as well.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Joel Rose.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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