Death in Detention: How a grievance can lead to deathWhen Juan Alejandro Guevara-Lozano, 21, first came under the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) he was in good health. According to his latest medical records, he had no past medical problems, zero surgeries and took no medications. During his time in custody at the Otero County Processing Center, Guevara-Lozano began to seek medical help for headaches that gradually worsened. “We didn’t know what was wrong, they never gave him a diagnosis, only a Tylenol and that’s it,” said his wife, Raquel Mata.
Medical treatments inside detention centers isn’t hands-on, it’s paperwork. First a detainee must file a report and make a formal request to visit a healthcare professional. This person can be anything from an Emergency Medical Professional (EMT) to a Nurse or a Physician. According to the contract between ICE and Otero County, medical coverage can be on-call and off-site, as long as it’s a 24/7 deal.
Even so, not all pleas will lead to an actual consultation. Often inmates will just sign-off on offers to receive a pain reliever, such as in Guevara-Lozano’s case. But herein lies a problem as to who is making these decisions. How is the escalation of a request to have a medical visit determined?
“God I wish they had just taken care of him” said Richard Chavez, one of the EMT’s who responded when Guevara-Lozano Chavez was found on the floor in seizures. His headaches had clearly evolved.
Guevara-Lozano was then taken to the Thomason Hospital emergency room. Two ICE officers guarded him. Meanwhile, his wife rushed to see him. “He was not there, it was just his body”, said Mata who saw that her husband was about to die. “The machines were doing everything for him.”
A few hours later Guevara-Lozano was declared brain dead and the machines were shut off. Guevara-Lozano’s life officially expired on the 13th of August, 2007 by ICE and they released his body to the family. His headaches were symptoms of a brain aneurysm.
Guevara-Lozano was the 80th person to have died under I.C.E. custody since 2004. Since then 54 more detainees have died. Causes of the deaths range from cancer to asphyxiation to hanging.
More undocumented immigrants have fallen under ICE’s custody than ever before since the US began to seal its borders from terrorists. Private institutions or prisons are contracted to help with this growing population. It’s a complex web of private contractors and sub-contractors who are supposed to provide the very basic needs for detained immigrants.
Inside detention meals, recreation and bed space is tight. Detainees are housed in large warehouse-like rooms and have strictly controlled access to the outside world. This becomes a very complicated matter when medical needs arise. It’s a system that has been criticized for being highly inadequate and unaccountable.
Guevara-Lozano might have not died if the circumstances were different. Had he not been detained, he could have simply driven a couple of minutes into Juarez, Mexico and seen his family physician at a low cost. If he’d been transferred to a hospital and had a scan he might have begun treatment. Instead Guevara-Lozano spent his last hours in an institution with about 1000 other detainees, all under the care of just two Emergency Medical Technicians, no licensed physicians on-site. “One of these EMT’s was brand new,” said Mrs. Mata’s lawyer.