Report Shows Poor Medical Care Led to Deaths at U.S. Detention Center

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Report Shows Poor Medical Care Led to Deaths at U.S. Detention Centers Exposes Extreme Cases of Substandard Medical Care

WASHINGTON, DC — A report, Fatal Neglect: How ICE Ignores Deaths in Detention, released today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Detention Watch Network (DWN) and the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), examines egregious violations of medical standards by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that played a significant role in the deaths of eight people in detention centers across the country.

During the Obama administration, 56 individuals have died while in ICE custody. This report focuses on eight deaths during a three-year period (2010 to 2012). Based on documentation from ICE investigations conducted after each death, which the ACLU received through a Freedom of Information Act request, the report shows that violations of ICE’s medical standards contributed to the deaths. More perniciously, additional research shows that ICE inspections of the detention facilities before and after these deaths failed to acknowledge — or sometimes dismissed — the substandard medical care.

“There is no guarantee that people detained by ICE will leave detention alive, even under Obama administration policies that sought to decrease the number of people who die in ICE custody,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director of NIJC. “ICE has a mandate to care for the people in their custody. If detention centers cannot deliver prompt and quality medical care, ICE must implement corrective actions for those facilities or terminate contracts with facilities that do not comply.”

Among the report findings:

  • In nearly half of the 17 death reviews produced by ICE from 2010 to 2012, the documentation suggests that failure to comply with ICE medical standards contributed to deaths.
  • Even in the eight cases where death reviews concluded that violations of ICE medical standards contributed to people’s deaths, ICE’s deficient inspections system essentially swept those findings under the rug.
  • Three of the eight cases profiled led to wrongful death lawsuits by family members.
  • Six deaths involving substandard care occurred at privately operated facilities.

The findings underscore how ICE’s deficient inspections system, first exposed by NIJC and DWN in the October 2015 report Lives in Peril, exacts a tragic human toll. ICE has repeatedly shown it is incapable of providing people in its custody the medical care they need and deserve — even failing to implement its own medical standards to prevent deaths. People experiencing medical or mental health emergencies should be released from custody and promptly referred to higher-level care.

“Immigration detention in the United States should not be a death sentence,” said Silky Shah, Co-Director of Detention Watch Network. “No matter where someone came from or how they arrived in the United States they must be treated with dignity and respect. ICE has a legal obligation to perform meaningful inspections at all detention facilities — and it is critical that it implement immediate reforms to guarantee deaths are prevented.”

“ICE's inadequate responses to these deaths show the stark gap between the promise and the reality of the Obama administration's immigration detention reform initiatives,” said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the National Prison Project of the ACLU. “Instead of ignoring its own internal investigations, ICE must learn from its deadly errors. That means providing swift, quality medical care to those who need it, and overhauling the inspections process to stop more people from dying in detention. No family deserves to wonder if their loved one died a preventable death in ICE custody.”

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For nearly 100 years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been our nation’s guardian of liberty, working in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and the laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.

Detention Watch Network (DWN) is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons.

Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. Visit