Health in Detention

By Michelle Chen Mar 17, 2009

New reports from human rights groups issue a grim prognosis for the health of detained immigrants. Focusing on inadequacies in medical care for female detainees, Human Rights Watch documented abuses ranging from “delays in medical treatment and testing in cases where symptoms indicate that women’s lives and well-being could be at risk, to the shackling of pregnant women during transport, to systematic failures in provision of routine care." The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center assesses the result of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s penny-pinching on detainee health:

Government records, news reports, and FIAC’s experience in detention centers plainly indicate that healthcare in ICE custody is deteriorating, and many officials responsible for that care are alarmed. Regardless of its public posturing, ICE funding for detainee medical care is inadequate. At the same time, ICE’s attempts to save money – by limiting covered ailments and denying requests for needed treatment – are counterproductive. Covered services are in essence limited to emergency care, and a managed-care process requires every referral, medical exam, or treatment of a detainee to be approved by off-site nurses who conduct a paper review, sometimes without the full medical records…. Too often, denied or botched care then leads to costly complications and lawsuits that cost taxpayers more money.

Part of the problem is that the mission of ICE’s Division of Immigration Health Services isn’t really to ensure that all detainees receive the care they need, but rather, to keep people essentially well enough to be kicked out of the country before they die. (Though occasionally, the process gets a little mixed up.) According to Human Rights Watch researchers:

The DIHS Medical Dental Detainee Covered Services Package, which governs access to off-site specialists, says that requests for non-emergency care will be considered if going without treatment in custody would “cause deterioration of the detainee’s health or uncontrolled suffering affecting his/her deportation status.”

Another issue, of course, is that there just might not be enough resources to provide adequate care for the roughly 29,000 detainees now being warehoused in detention centers. And yet, there’s no shortage of money changing hands in the detention business. Apparently unshaken by the economic downturn, the prison-industry mogul Corrections Corporation of America is looking forward to opening a new facility in Georgia and a new contract to “manage” about 750 detainees at a Colorado facility. In a cash-strapped state like California, immigration detention in public facilities is a pretty good deal: The federal government will spend an estimated $57 million to house immigrants in local jails—a buffer against budget cuts for some local law enforcement systems. The detention industry, it seems, is giving just about everyone a cut—thanks to the generosity of taxpayers, and thousands of loyal clients who finance their residential privileges with their health. Image: Fair Immigration Reform Movement.