17. Deadly Medical Neglect for Immigrants in Privatized US Jails

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Over one hundred inmates in privatized, immigrant-only prisons have died, many in disturbing circumstances involving negligent medical and mental health care, Seth Freed Wessler reported for the Nation in January 2016.

Wessler’s article documented the deadly consequences of medical neglect in eleven immigrant-only prisons, known as Criminal Alien Requirement facilities. From 1998 to 2014, at least 137 inmates died in these special immigrant-only facilities run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and the Management and Training Corporation under contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

Wessler’s report was based on more than 9,000 pages of medical records for 103 of the inmates who died in custody since the BOP first opened contract facilities. He fought over two years to obtain these files, using FOIA requests and ultimately a federal lawsuit to compel the BOP to release the records.

The Nation convened a panel of twenty-three independent reviewers, including seventeen medical doctors and six psychiatrists, to review the files. In twenty-five cases, multiple reviewers found evidence of inadequate care that likely contributed to an inmate’s premature death. By contrast, in just thirty-nine cases did the reviewers find that care had likely been in accordance with recognized medical standards.

Unlike prisons that are run directly by the federal government—including immigration detention centers, where federal authorities typically hold immigrants pending deportation—these private, for-profit institutions are not held to the same standards. “Though the prisons are part of the federal infrastructure, the private contractors that run them operate under a different—and less stringent—set of rules in order to allow cost-cutting innovations,” Wessler wrote.  (For background on the economics and politics of privatized prisons, see “Private Prison Companies Fund Anti-Immigrant Legislation,” Censored story #5 from Censored 2012.)

As a result, men with cancer, AIDS, mental illness, and liver and heart disease endured critical delays in care, prison medical units failed to make correct diagnoses of patients with obvious and painful symptoms, and inmates died of treatable diseases that they likely would have survived with access to adequate care.

The medical files documented at least seven suicides in the BOP’s immigrant-only contract prisons. One BOP official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Wessler, “In regular BOP prisons, mental-health treatment is part of the mission, because rehabilitation is part of the mission … For criminal-alien prisons, it’s just, ‘Hold them.’” Seven of the thirteen privatized facilities were not compliant with the standards for adequate mental health care.

Furthermore, licensed vocational nurses (or LVNs, who are meant to function as support staff for registered nurses or medical doctors) were often inmates’ sole medical providers. “In 19 of the 103 deaths we reviewed,” Wessler wrote, “at least one doctor flagged the overextension of LVNs as an inadequacy in care.”

Forty percent of the men held in these prisons were incarcerated for “immigration-related” crimes for which only noncitizens can be convicted, including, for example, trying to re-enter the US after being deported. Until the 1990s, this crime was rarely ever prosecuted. The privatization of US prisons began in the late 1990s, as an effort by President Bill Clinton’s administration to reduce the size of the federal workforce and to cut costs in the federal prison system.

An extensive search of corporate media coverage yielded just three somewhat comparable reports, each dating back to 2009, on the subject of inmate deaths in private prisons. Two of those articles were from the New York Times, with another from the Washington Post. More recently, corporate news has focused on exposing the costs of incarcerating immigrants, or comparing the frequency with which illegal immigrants and US citizens are convicted of rape or murder, as in reports from CNN and Fox News. The deadly medical neglect of inmates in privatized, immigrant-only prisons—as documented by Seth Freed Wessler for the Nation—has gone unreported in the US corporate press.

Seth Freed Wessler, “This Man Will Almost Certainly Die,” Nation, January 28, 2016, http://www.thenation.com/article/privatized-immigrant-prison-deaths/.

Seth Freed Wessler, “A Guide to Our Investigation of Deaths Inside the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Immigrant-Only Facilities,” Nation, January 28, 2016, http://www.thenation.com/article/a-guide-to-our-investigation-of-deaths-inside-the-federal-bureau-of-prisons-immigrant-only-facilities/.

Seth Freed Wessler, interview by Juan González and Amy Goodman, “‘This Man Will Almost Certainly Die’: The Secret Deaths of Dozens at Privatized Immigrant-Only Jails,” broadcast February 9, 2016, Democracy Now!, transcript, http://www.democracynow.org/2016/2/9/this_man_will_almost_certainly_die.

Student Researchers: Aliana Ruiz (Citrus College), Alexandra Castillo (California Maritime Academy), Justin Lascano (Diablo Valley College), and Harrison Hartman (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluators: Nolan Higdon (California Maritime Academy), Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College), and Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)