Illness Hinders Plans to Close Immigration Jail

Udi Ofer '01 in The New York Times, February 23, 2010

Media Source

By NINA BERNSTEIN

When Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced last month that they would close New York City’s only immigration jail and relocate its roughly 300 detainees to New Jersey, they described the step as part of a larger overhaul to improve health care and cost-effectiveness in the nation’s detention system.

But with only three days to go before the official end of detention operations at the jail, the Varick Federal Detention Facility in Greenwich Village, on Friday, officials have found that the detainees hardest to relocate are those with serious medical problems.

And each day, dozens of noncitizen New Yorkers — some with acute or chronic ailments — are still entering Varick, which immigration officials say they will keep using only as a processing hub for about 11,000 men a year, to be held no more than 12 hours.

For years the immigration jail, on the fourth floor of a federal office building at Varick and Houston Streets, was supposed to be a brief holding place for New York detainees. But it ended up keeping hundreds of detainees for months, especially those with medical or mental problems who were often denied admission by county jails in New Jersey where immigration authorities rent cells.

Immigrant advocates predict the same problem will recur. “Whether they plan on it or not, detainees are going to be held longer than intended at Varick,” said Udi Ofer, advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who analyzed hundreds of detainee grievances obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, in a report to be released Wednesday.

“Moving detainees from New York to New Jersey is not going to fix the problem of inadequate care for immigration detainees,” Mr. Ofer added, echoing other advocates who question whether the government should be detaining so many in the first place. “The absence of legally enforceable standards leads to situations where detainees are being mistreated, whether they’re being held for a day, a month or a year.”

Last week, as federal officials took a reporter on a rare tour of the jail, past the crowded holding cells into locked dorms and disciplinary cells that double as “medical holds,” one of the longtime detainees waiting to learn his fate was Adler Michel, 52, a legal resident from Haiti with diabetes, high blood pressure and a swollen jaw.

Mr. Michel, a Brooklyn barber with two drug convictions but no record of violence, has spent more than 20 months at Varick while battling deportation. Officials said one reason he stayed was that at least one New Jersey jail had refused to accept him because of medical concerns. He is ineligible for bond under laws that require detention for immigrants who have ever been convicted of misdemeanor drug possession, or any of a long list of other offenses.

“Obviously, his medical needs must and will be addressed by us while he is in our custody,” said Brian P. Hale, a spokesman for the immigration enforcement agency. The 100 detainees remaining on Tuesday were expected to be reduced to 70 by the end of the day, he added.

Beth Gibson, senior counsel to the agency’s chief, who joined Mr. Hale on the tour of Varick, said opening the jail to a reporter underscored the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency and reform. Plans she cited include streamlining cumbersome paperwork requirements that delay needed care.

“We didn’t get where it is overnight,” Ms. Gibson said.

But immigrant advocacy groups see the handling of Varick detainees as an illustration of the unfairness and waste in the $1.7 billion detention system.

A coalition of 16 legal and advocacy organizations offered this month to collaborate on a case-by-case review to identify detainees eligible for release, parole, or alternatives to detention like electronic monitoring, which costs about $14 a day, instead of Varick’s $253 or the $111 at the Hudson County Correctional Center, where many detainees are being transferred.

But last week, their request was rejected by federal officials, who said they lacked the resources to conduct such a review before the transfers.

At most of the New Jersey jails, health care is provided by a company with a record of medical cost-cutting that has sometimes proved lethal. Federal officials pledged that a government physician at Varick, Dr. Peter D’Orazio, would oversee the care of the relocated New York detainees and screen those entering the jail.

But that does not reassure the Civil Liberties Union lawyers, who said that Dr. D’Orazio was no help when they tried to get proper care for a detainee suffering from infected teeth and gastrointestinal ailments.

“As I write this, I am in so much pain that I want to hit my head against the wall and cry,” the detainee, then 23, wrote last July, in one of more than 210 grievances filed by Varick detainees between August 2008 and August 2009. About 30 percent of the complaints cited medical neglect.

A medical screening record notes that the detainee had a tooth abscess when he entered the jail in October 2008. But despite his pleas to see a dentist, it went untreated for 10 months and spread to seven teeth, Mr. Ofer said, even as the detainee was put on a liquid diet because he could no longer chew.

Only after Mr. Ofer intervened did the man get to see a dentist, who offered extraction, records show. The detainee, who remains at Varick, instead wants to save the teeth with root canals at his own expense, Mr. Ofer said. The government has refused, citing liability issues.

Asked about the case, Dr. D’Orazio first denied that the detainee had an abscessed tooth, then said: “We addressed his issue. Now it’s up to him to seek the care.”

Most grievances cannot be checked and outcomes are not known because detainee names were redacted by the government under privacy laws. But one described an attempt to deport a detainee with prostate cancer two days after he had requested a doctor’s appointment.

The detainee, a 47-year-old Russian, wrote in November 2008 of being locked in a van at Kennedy International Airport for hours in acute pain as guards refused to let him go to the bathroom. He was eventually returned to Varick and catheterized, he wrote.

Records confirm that he had been found to have cancer at Beth Israel Medical Center before his detention and that he had been advised to get immediate treatment. But on Dec. 9, 2008, the detainee, still waiting for a medical appointment, wrote in a grievance, “Will it be after my death?”

An official’s handwritten note adds that the detainee was deported 12 days later.