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Living in the Shadows: Death at detention center latest in line of problems

Living in the Shadows: Death at detention center latest in line of problems

Picture of William Heisel

When a Jamaican woman who had been held at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center died last week, it was just the latest in a series of troubling events at the complex of federal detention facilities just north of the Mexico border outside San Diego.

Marjorie Annmarie Bell, 48, started complaining about chest pain and nausea, according to ICE, before she was taken to Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center on Feb. 13. The agency did not report how long she had been complaining. The hospital is about a 20-minute drive from the Otay Detention Facility, which is run by Corrections Corporation of America under a contract with ICE.

Her heart failed at about 1 p.m., according to ICE. City News Service reported:

Bell had sought admission to the United States on Dec. 24 at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where she allegedly presented a counterfeit Canadian passport to Customs and Border Protection personnel. She was transferred to ICE custody Jan. 2 and was being held pending immigration proceedings. Federal officials have notified Bell's family and the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, D.C., about the fatality.

For someone’s heart to stop at 48 is very uncommon. This could be a strange occurrence. It also could be part of a larger pattern. Here’s a look recent events at the federal detention facilities in the San Diego area. 

January 2005 – Ignacio Sarabia‐Vallasenor, a 33-year-old Mexican immigrant, died of a heart attack while in ICE custody. Thomas Larson at The San Diego Weekly Reader wrote about that case:

Ignacio Sarabia-Villasenor collapsed with an apparent seizure while taking a shower. He couldn’t breathe, and fellow detainees called for assistance. One officer who responded “ordered the pod on lockdown.” This meant moving all inmates to their cells. Not until 25 minutes after his collapse did anyone apply CPR. By then, Sarabia was dead.

December 2005 - Roberto Ledesman‐Guerreo, a 72-year-old Mexican immigrant, died of  cardiopulmonary arrest while in ICE custody.

June 2006 – Yusif Osman, a 34-year-old detainee from Ghana, died of coronary artery vasculitis while in ICE custody. KPCC's Leslie Berestein who was then at the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote:

According to the county medical examiner's report, it took personnel more than an hour to call 911 after Osman's cellmate began asking for help. The report claims that Osman was seen on his knees, and that a medical supervisor, upon finding no medical history on him, "informed the control officer to have Mr. Osman file a request to seek medical assistance.”

January 2007 – The American Civil Liberties Union joined a lawsuit filed by Isaac Kigondu Kiniti, a Kenyan man detained in the Otay Detention Facility, against ICE and Corrections Corporation of America. Mariana Martinez at La Prensa in San Diego wrote:

The civil-rights group claimed in their class action lawsuit, that the over one thousand detainees at the Otay Facility are cramped up like sardines, and that this has been a systematic, long-term outrageous overcrowding, as well as cases where people have been denied medicine or medical attention for chronic illnesses. The ACLU has documented at least one case where one detainee was repeatedly denied care for a cut on his foot, and ended up with a bone infection and may have to have his foot amputated, and another case where a detainee had a lesion on his genitals that was never treated and later turned into cancer. When the lawsuit was filed, more than 650 immigration detainees at the facility were living three-to-a-cell – resulting in one of them having to sleep on a plastic slab on the floor by the toilet.

February 2008 – Francisco Castaneda, a Mexican immigrant, died while in ICE custody after cancer in his penis went undiagnosed and untreated, despite his repeated complaints. A federal judge later found his treatment “beyond cruel and unusual.” According to Larson’s story in The San Diego Reader, before his death Castaneda testified to Congress alongside his daughter Vanessa, saying:

I had to be here today because I am not the only one who didn’t get the medical care I needed. It was routine for detainees to have to wait weeks or months to get even basic care. Who knows how many tragic endings can be avoided if ICE will only remember that, regardless of why a person is in detention and regardless of where they will end up, they are still human and deserve basic humane medical care. In many ways, it’s too late for me. Short of a miracle, the most I can hope for are some good days with Vanessa and justice.

June 2008 – ICE and the ACLU agreed to settle the overcrowding lawsuit. Even before the settlement, ICE began to transfer detainees out of the facility. Between April 2007 and March 2008, 4,201 detainees were transferred after short-term stays in the facility, according to Syracuse University.

July 2008 – Staff at the Otay facility wrote to the U.S. Division of Immigration Health Services medical director Timothy T. Shack, expressing concern about the care detainees were receiving. Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein at the Washington Post wrote:

Doctors express concerns about violating medical ethics and fear lawsuits. In July, Esther Hui at Otay Mesa sent a memo to DIHS medical director Timothy T. Shack, saying her colleagues were worried that they might be sued because of the substandard care they were giving detainees. The agency's mission of "keeping the detainee medically ready for deportation" often conflicts with the standards of care in the wider medical community, Hui wrote. "I know in my gut that I am exposing myself to the US legal standard of care argument. ... Do we need to get personal liability insurance?"

January 2009 - Julio Martinez, a 44-year-old Mexican immigrant, died of end-stage cirrhosis of the liver while in ICE custody.

February 2009 – A Mexican immigrant with HIV was released from detention following an ACLU lawsuit. The ACLU wrote about the case:

In response to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other groups, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to release an HIV-positive torture victim from Mexico who was detained by immigration officials for nearly two years despite a judge having granted her relief. Oscar ‘Diana’ Santander, who suffered torture in her home country at the hands of police and other government officials, was granted asylum and relief under the Convention Against Torture last May by an immigration judge. But the government continued to incarcerate her at the San Diego Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, while it appealed a portion of the ruling. Although the grant of asylum was reversed by the Board of Immigration Appeals, the immigration judge recently reaffirmed the grant of relief under the Convention Against Torture. The government decided not to appeal that ruling and released Ms. Santander late last week.

October 2009 – A detainee in ICE custody filed a complaint “that fellow detainee inappropriately touched his/her genitals in an act of unwanted sexual conduct, and threatened to hurt complainant if h/she reported the incident,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

April 2010 – A detainee in ICE custody filed a complaint “that h/she was raped by a police officer while being transported from police department to local jail,” according to the ACLU.

July 2010 – A detainee in ICE custody filed a complaint “that he/she was sexually assaulted by cell-mate while he/she was sleeping,” according to the ACLU.

December 2010 – ICE settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2007 over poor medical care. ICE promised to offer more treatments and better mental health care.  According to the Siskind Susser immigration law firm, “The lawsuit alleged that detainees endured long waits for medical treatment and did not get the medications needed for chronic illnesses. The settlement requires that ICE meet standards of care specified by the national Commission on Correctional Health Care.”

October 2011 – An ACLU study showed that the Otay Detention Facility had more allegations of sexual abuse since 2007 than any other detention facility in the California.

Do you know about more incidents at the Otay Detention Facility? Let me know by writing askantidote [at] or via Twitter @wheisel.

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