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A 'shocking' 911 call and other key takeaways from NPR's ICE detention investigation

Immigrants in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) use the phones at a detention center in California in 2019. Secret government reports obtained by NPR described "negligent," "barbaric" and "filthy" conditions in ICE detention.
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AP
Immigrants in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) use the phones at a detention center in California in 2019. Secret government reports obtained by NPR described "negligent," "barbaric" and "filthy" conditions in ICE detention.

Members of congress and immigration advocates are expressing outrage and calling for an overhaul of the nation's immigration detention system following an NPR investigationbased on a trove of once-secret government inspection reports.

Through a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, NPR obtained more than 1,600 pages of records from the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Those records described a "barbaric" use of force, "negligent" medical care that contributed to the death of immigrants, racist abuse and "filthy conditions" inside detention facilities overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Separately, NPR also obtained the audio of a 911 call made from an ICE detention facility during a fatal medical emergency, raising questions about training, communication and response times when a life was on the line.

A spokesperson for the Biden Administration said that the reports depict conditions during the "prior administration," and an industry group that represents the private operators of ICE detention facilities said that the reports were "outdated."

Attorneys and advocates for immigrants however, contend that the conditions inside ICE detention have not improved, largely because of problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We deserve better. And our immigrants and refugees deserve better," U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat who represents a district that includes an ICE detention facility, told NPR.

"These stories are not only heartbreaking but incredibly damning," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, wrote on social media.

Crow, Jayapal and more than 100 other Democrats have called for legislationto improve detention standards at ICE facilities and phase out government contracts with the for-profit companies that operate the vast majority of ICE detention centers.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement to NPR, "ICE takes its commitment to promoting safe, secure, humane environments for those in our custody very seriously." The spokesperson noted that the government has stoppedusing multiple immigration detention facilities due to concerns over conditions, adding, "We are committed to ensuring, to the extent possible, that individuals remain in a facility that is close to family, loved ones, or attorneys of record."

Here are some key takeaways from NPR's investigation:

1. Inadequate medical care posed the most serious problem in ICE detention.

Inspectors for the Department of Homeland Security found that ICE detainees were subjected to racist abuse, filthy cells, unjustified use of force and unsafe conditions across the country. The most serious — and sometimes deadly — problems identified by inspectors, however, relate to medical care.

At the Calhoun County Jail in Michigan, for example, a man was sent into a jail's general population unit with an open wound from surgery, no bandages and no follow-up medical appointment scheduled, even though he still had surgical drains in place. "The detainee never received even the most basic care for his wound," the inspector wrote.

At the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Georgia, an inspector found that a nurse ignored an ICE detainee who urgently asked for an inhaler to treat his asthma. The nurse put a note in the medical record that "he was seen in sick call," even though he was never examined by the medical staff. According to the inspector, "the documentation by the nurse bordered on falsification and the failure to see a patient urgently requesting medical attention regarding treatment with an inhaler was negligent."

And at the Aurora ICE Processing Center in Colorado, a 64-year-old man named Kamyar Samimi was cut off from methadone, which he had been prescribed for decades to manage opioid use disorder. Samimi experienced severe withdrawal symptoms and his health rapidly deteriorated, but ICE records show that the facility's physician never examined him, nurses skipped multiple medical checks and the facility staff used a withdrawal protocol for alcohol - not opioids. Samimi ultimately died after roughly two weeks in custody.

"The complete lack of medical leadership, supervision and care that this detainee was exposed to is simply astonishing and stands out as one of the most egregious failures to provide optimal care in my experience," the medical expert wrote.

That inspector found that the Samimi case was part of a pattern of inadequate medical care at the Aurora facility. In another instance, the inspector found that a detainee was diagnosed with HIV but was never told about the diagnosis.

2. The Biden administration has not fulfilled a campaign promise to "end for-profit detention centers."

President Biden pledged during his campaign to "end" the use of for-profit detention centers, but advocates and lawyers for immigrants have criticized his administration for breaking that promise. The number of people in ICE detention has nearly doubled since Biden's inauguration, and most of them are in facilities run by for-profit companies.

In one instance, a prison that closed following a Biden administration order to phase out privately run Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities was essentially converted into a privately run ICE detention center. ICE is also fighting New Jersey's effort to close a for-profit detention center in the state — an ICE official said in a court filing that closing the facility would be "catastrophic."

An ACLU analysis found that as of July 2023 nearly 91 percent of ICE detainees were being held in privately run detention facilities.

At a White House press briefing, NPR's Asma Khalid asked about the Biden administration's failure to fulfill this campaign promise. "I think the President is still committed to that — to ... what he laid out during his campaign," said Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

"President Biden continues to support moving away from the use of private detention facilities in the immigration detention system," a White House spokesperson added in a statement. "We could be making a lot more progress if Congress would give us the necessary funds and reforms that we've been asking for since day one."

Rep. Crow expressed disappointment that "we haven't been able to get the traction that we want" in that effort, and that the Biden administration has not taken action to end for-profit ICE detention.

"I think they're concerned that they won't have the capacity to meet the demand and the overflow at the border," said Crow. "And I kind of understand that concern. But that's why we're willing to work with them to try to figure out other solutions."

3. A 911 call obtained by NPR revealed gaps in communication during a fatal medical emergency.

In 2022, detainee Melvin Ariel Calero-Mendoza of Nicaragua died at the Aurora ICE Processing Center. According to ICE records, Calero-Mendoza had been complaining for weeks about pain and swelling in his leg. He began having trouble breathing and collapsed in ICE detention, before ultimately dying of a pulmonary embolism.

NPR obtained a copy of the 911 call made from the Aurora ICE Processing Center during Calero-Mendoza's medical emergency, and it reveals a series of delays and gaps in communication.

The detention officer who called 911 gave the dispatcher the wrong address for the facility where he worked; he placed the dispatcher on hold when asked how paramedics could access the building and he did not know any of the specifics of the medical emergency. He also wrongly stated that Calero-Mendoza was in his "late 20s" when he was, in fact, 39 years old.

"The depth of indifference that this caller displayed was shocking," said Elizabeth Jordan, an attorney for Calero-Mendoza's family. "The family is disappointed and horrified by this call."

Rep. Crow, who represents Aurora, called the detention officer's actions on the 911 call "unacceptable." Since helping to pass a law allowing members of congress to regularly access ICE detention facilities, Crow and his office have been making weekly visits to the Aurora ICE Processing Center to conduct oversight

GEO Group, the for-profit company that runs the Aurora ICE Processing Center, said it could not comment on specific cases, but offered its condolences to Calero-Mendoza's family.

4. The government violated the law by trying to keep ICE inspection records secret.

NPR first requested the inspection reports under the Freedom of Information Act in 2019, but the government initially refused to provide a single page of the documents.

After exhausting the FOIA appeals process, NPR filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security in September 2020.

The government argued in court that releasing the records without major redactions, which covered dozens of pages, would make it difficult for inspectors to provide their "uninhibited opinions and recommendations" and could "cause public confusion."

Federal Judge Royce Lamberth rejected DHS's arguments, found that the government had violated the Freedom of Information Act and ordered it to release the files. After initially appealing the ruling, the government provided the documents in the spring of 2023. NPR continues to seek more recent reports from these inspectors.

Read NPR's full investigation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
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