An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

The daughter of Pedro Tavarez, a 49-year-old immigrant detainee who died while in custody of the Suffolk County House of Correction (MA), filed a federal lawsuit against officials for their role in his death. The suit states that Tavarez "died from a heart attack caused by a massive sepsis infection that the defendants failed to properly treat." In a scenario that continues to play out across the country, the federal government will spend exponentially more money defending its failure to provide good medical care than it could have to save a person's life.

Immigration detention has been criticized as a rapidly-growing, profit-making business with little transparency and poor oversight. Jails under contract with the federal government to house immigration detainees — such as Suffolk County jail — receive $90 per detainee, per day from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While prisons rush to increase the number of beds available to hold immigration detainees, monitoring has become more difficult.

Months after Tavarez's October 2009 death, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) discovered that ICE failed to report the death of an immigrant detainee who had been held in Arizona. The ACLU's discovery, and suspicion that ICE had also failed to report other deaths, sparked a government investigation that revealed more than one in 10 deaths occurring in immigration detention from 2003-2009 had been overlooked by ICE. The details behind these unreported deaths remain unclear, but advocates wonder whether they — like many others — were caused by the failure to provide basic medical care. In 2010, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigation into Tavarez's death revealed many instances in which Tavarez did not receive proper care while detained at Suffolk County.

The federal government's recent efforts to improve immigration detention conditions are encouraging but insufficient.

Although DHS has undertaken measures aimed at improving the quality of health services for immigrant detainees — including its recent overhaul of covered services — there is still much room for improvement. Language barriers, incomplete medical records, and short-staffed facilities cause unnecessary delays in treatment that sometimes result in death. These barriers to medical care are preventable, and should quickly be eliminated so that detainees receive the treatment they need, before their health deteriorates irreversibly.

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