By NINA BERNSTEIN
Word spread quickly inside the windowless walls of the Elizabeth Detention Center, an immigration jail in New Jersey: A detainee had fallen, injured his head and become incoherent. Guards had put him in solitary confinement, and late that night, an ambulance had taken him away more dead than alive.
But outside, for five days, no official notified the family of the detainee, Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea who had overstayed a tourist visa. When frantic relatives located him at University Hospital in Newark on Feb. 5, 2007, he was in a coma after emergency surgery for a skull fracture and multiple brain hemorrhages. He died there four months later without ever waking up, leaving family members on two continents trying to find out why.
Mr. Bah’s name is one of 66 on a government list of deaths that occurred in immigration custody from January 2004 to November 2007, when nearly a million people passed through.
The list, compiled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after Congress demanded the information, and obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, is the fullest accounting to date of deaths in immigration detention, a patchwork of federal centers, county jails and privately run prisons that has become the nation’s fastest-growing form of incarceration.
The list has few details, and they are often unreliable, but it serves as a rough road map to previously unreported cases like Mr. Bah’s. And it reflects a reality that haunts grieving families like his: the difficulty of getting information about the fate of people taken into immigration custody, even when they die.
Mr. Bah’s relatives never saw the internal records labeled “proprietary information — not for distribution” by the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the New Jersey detention center for the federal government. The documents detail how he was treated by guards and government employees: shackled and pinned to the floor of the medical unit as he moaned and vomited, then left in a disciplinary cell for more than 13 hours, despite repeated notations that he was unresponsive and intermittently foaming at the mouth.
Mr. Bah had lived in New York for a decade, surrounded by a large circle of friends and relatives. The extravagant gowns he sewed to support his wife and children in West Africa were on display in a Manhattan boutique.
But he died in a sequestered system where questions about what had happened to him, or even his whereabouts, were met with silence.
As the country debates stricter enforcement of immigration laws, thousands of people who are not American citizens are being locked up for days, months or years while the government decides whether to deport them. Some have no valid visa; some are legal residents, but have past criminal convictions; others are seeking asylum from persecution.
Death is a reality in any jail, and the medical neglect of inmates is a perennial issue. But far more than in the criminal justice system, immigration detainees and their families lack basic ways to get answers when things go wrong.
No government body is required to keep track of deaths and publicly report them. No independent inquiry is mandated. And often relatives who try to investigate the treatment of those who died say they are stymied by fear of immigration authorities, lack of access to lawyers, or sheer distance.
Federal officials say deaths are reviewed internally by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which reports them to its inspector general and decides which ones warrant investigation. Officials say they notify the detainee’s next of kin or consulate, and report the deaths to local medical authorities, who may conduct autopsies. In Mr. Bah’s case, a review before his death found no evidence of foul play, an immigration spokesman said, though after later inquiries from The Times, he said a full review of the death was under way.
But critics, including many in Congress, say this piecemeal process leaves too much to the agency’s discretion, allowing some deaths to be swept under the rug while potential witnesses are transferred or deported. They say it also obscures underlying complaints about medical care, abusive conditions or inadequate suicide prevention.
Rest of story:
A Family Abroad Boubacar Bah with his first wife, Dalanda, and their elder son, Amadou Talibé Bah, in Guinea before Mr. Bah came to the United States in 1998.
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