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Cancer-Stricken 34-Year-Old Chinese Computer Engineer Dies After Being Denied Care in Private US Immigration Prison

StoryAugust 19, 2008
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Earlier this month, a thirty-four-year-old Chinese computer engineer, Hiu Lui Ng, who overstayed his visa, died in a Rhode Island immigration detention center. He had cancer in his liver, lung and bones, and a fractured spine. Despite repeated complaints of severe pain, Mr. Ng was refused independent medical evaluation by immigration officials. Before Mr. Ng died on August 6th, he told his sister that the nurses at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island had told him to “stop faking” his illness. We speak to immigration attorney Joshua Bardavid, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Renee Feltz, co-creator of the site BusinessOfDetention.com. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the sprawling detention system within this country that some have likened to a gulag and a series of domestic Guantanamo Bays: the immigration prisons that over 300,000 pass through each year.

Earlier this month, a thirty-four-year-old Chinese computer engineer named Hiu Lui Ng overstayed his visa, died in a Rhode Island immigration detention facility. He had cancer in his liver, in his lung, in his bones. He had a fractured spine.

Despite repeated complaints of severe pain, Mr. Ng was refused independent medical evaluation by immigration officials. The New York Times reported this. Instead, he was taken in shackles to another prison two hours away, where an immigration officer tried to convince him to withdraw his appeals and accept deportation.

Before Jason Ng — his American name — died on August 6th, he told his sister the doctors at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island had told him to “stop faking” his illness.

Jason Ng’s story is the latest in a series of similar cases of neglect and abuse at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. Investigations by the Washington Post, the New York Times earlier this year revealed as many as eighty-three prisoners have died in or soon after ICE custody in the five years since the agency was created in March of 2003.

When contacted for response, ICE said they could not comment on Jason Ng’s death, because it’s under investigation.

Congress is responding to these deaths with legislation aimed to improve conditions for non-citizens in ICE custody. Congress member Zoe Lofgren from California and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey have sponsored the House and Senate versions of the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008.

We’re joined right now by Joshua Bardavid, attorney for Mr. Ng 's family. We're also joined by California Congress member Zoe Lofgren. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Before we go to the legislation, Joshua, tell us the full story of Jason Ng. Where was he born? How did he come to this country?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Jason was born in Hong Kong, and he entered with his family at the age of seventeen. They applied for political asylum. Unfortunately, a notice telling them to go to court was mailed to a nonexistent address. So an immigration judge had ordered Jason deported in absentia, unknowingly. Meanwhile, he went to school in the United States, graduated high school, went to college, graduate college, became an engineer working at the Empire State Building. He married, had two US citizen children. He married a US citizen, and they applied — he applied for his green card. When he went for his interview, instead of having his green card adjudicated, he was picked up. This was in July of 2007.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. So when he and his wife went to the green card interview?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Correct, correct. What they thought was their final interview to get his green card, that he would finally become a lawful permanent resident in the United States, he was picked up and swept into this system.

AMY GOODMAN: If he hadn’t applied for the green card, would he ever have been picked up? And he had been here for so many years, gone to college, was working here.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It’s possible that he would have been picked up. It’s possible that he would have lived his life not knowing that he had an order of deportation pending against him and not been touched. But the fact that he was trying to legalize his status was actually what put him into this system. Unfortunately, the system is sprawling. And he was first sent to a facility up in Massachusetts — I’m sorry, he was actually first sent to Rhode Island, then he was moved to a facility in Massachusetts, then to Vermont, and then back to Rhode Island from July 2007 until August 5 or August 6, the day that he passed away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what happened when he went into the detention facility. Was he healthy, as far as he knew, when he went in?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: He was a healthy, robust man.

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty-four.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Thirty-four. No history of medical problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Very tall?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Average height, average height. And he was slowly deteriorated as he was through the various facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: How long was he held?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: He was held from July 2007 until August 5th or August 6th. He died in the middle of the night.

AMY GOODMAN: About a year.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: About a year, a little over a year. During this process, he had a stay of deportation, because the courts were reviewing his deportation order, the fact that he was eligible for a green card, and immigration had not yet fully adjudicated his green card, because instead of adjudicating it, they had detained him.

During this process, he began to complain of various medical problems. In April of 2008, he had a steep decline. In a ten-week period, he dropped twenty-three pounds. At this point, he was in St. Albans, Vermont in a facility that had absolutely no medical facilities whatsoever, not even a nurse on duty. He was then transferred to the Donald Wyatt facility in July — I believe July 2nd.

AMY GOODMAN: In Rhode Island.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: In Rhode Island, excuse me, yes. July 2nd, 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: This, a public prison?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It is a private prison. It’s owned by a private corporation that only owns the Donald Wyatt facility. It had been owned by a major publicly traded corporation, Cornell Corrections, until, I believe, June of 2007, and then it was transferred to this private corporation, the Donald Wyatt Detention Corporation, that owns the facility.

The reason that he was moved from Vermont to Rhode Island was because the Vermont facility did not have any medical care facilities at all. Donald Wyatt supposedly had adequate facilities to provide for his care. Unfortunately, he was given basic medical evaluations. He was not given an MRI. He was not given a CAT scan, despite the fact that he was complaining of loss of feeling in extremities, despite the fact that he lost twenty-three pounds. At this point, he had now dropped about thirty to thirty-two pounds, and he was given just basic medical evaluation.

AMY GOODMAN: They put him on a top bunk? They had double-bunk?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: So that he would have to climb up and down.


AMY GOODMAN: But he was complaining of extreme back pain.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Right, and at various stages, complete loss of movement in his feet, in his legs, and loss of feeling in his legs. Eventually he was given a bottom bunk and some pain killers and given a basic medical evaluation. But at this point, he was unaware that he had cancer.

We’re unsure when he had a fractured spine. It may have occurred when he was moved by the ICE officials on July 30th. We don’t know when the fractured spine occurred. It’s possible, at this point, he did have a fractured spine. He was not given a wheelchair, despite repeated requests by his attorneys, by his family, by him, by his cell mate. He was cleared to walk with a cane, is what we were told.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he taken on a two-hour ride to Hartford, Connecticut?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It’s not really clear, and that’s one of the many unanswered questions in this case. When it became clear that we were not going to be able to get through basic requests the medical care that was clear he needed, we filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, seeking his release under due process grounds, because he was not receiving adequate care. This was filed on July 29th in Rhode Island. The very next day, he was taken in shackles in a van and driven two hours to Connecticut, where a deportation officer met with him and said that the only way they would release him or deport him is if he withdrew all of his appeals.


JOSHUA BARDAVID: No. He actually had become so desperate that he started to discuss that with his family members. At this point, communication was quite difficult, because he couldn’t use a phone, and he was not given a wheelchair.

AMY GOODMAN: Why couldn’t he use a phone?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Because he couldn’t walk to go to the payphone, and they wouldn’t give him a wheelchair to go to the payphone, and they wouldn’t give him a wheelchair to meet with us, his attorneys. So he was communicating through other Chinese-speaking detainees, although on the 30th, we were able to speak with him on the phone. And at this point, he began discussing withdrawing all his appeals.

And to give you an idea of just how much pain he was in and how much suffering he was going through, this is a man with a one-year-old and a three-year-old child with a US citizen wife who’s lived more of his life in the United States than he did in his home country in Hong Kong, and he was considering giving all of that up and accepting an order of deportation, even though it’s our opinion that he was legally eligible for a green card, simply because he needed the suffering to end.

AMY GOODMAN: When did the prison tell him he was faking it?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: That happened on several occasions. Just to correct you, I don’t believe it was a doctor who in fact accused him of faking it. I believe it was a nurse and several of the guards who said, you know, “You’re exaggerating your condition. You’re exaggerating your condition.”

AMY GOODMAN: Where exactly did he die?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: He died in the hospital in Rhode Island.

AMY GOODMAN: In the detention hospital?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: No, they had taken him to an outside hospital. What happened was, on July 31st, we had a hearing before a district judge in the district court of Rhode Island, and the district judge, while he didn’t rule on whether or not to release him, he, at the end of the hearing, said, “If this guy needs a wheelchair, get him a wheelchair. If he needs an MRI, get him an MRI.” And the US attorney, who was quite proactive at this point — only became involved in the case when we filed the petition in July 29th — assisted us in contacting the prison authorities and making sure the next day he was brought to a hospital for a CAT scan. And it was then and only then that it was discovered that he had cancer, basically all over his body, that he had a fractured spine, and we were told it was terminal. And he was — he remained in the hospital for the next three days, and he passed away on the night of August 5th, August 6th.

AMY GOODMAN: Was his family with him?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: They were able to see him on the final day. It took a little over two days for us to get clearance. The prison wanted and ICE officials wanted the Social Security numbers of his family in order to permit them to visit Jason. But we were finally able to get clearance so they could be with him at his side.

AMY GOODMAN: California Congress member Zoe Lofgren is with us now. She doesn’t represent his area, but has introduced federal legislation around medical care for immigration prisoners, for immigration detainees. Can you talk about the bill you’ve introduced and how it would affect, well, someone like Jason Ng, if he were still alive?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: Sure. I chair the Subcommittee on Immigration in the House of Representatives, and we’ve had two hearings on the conditions, medical conditions in ICE custody. One was last October. Then we had another in June.

And as has been mentioned, there were a series of press exposes on really just outrageous conditions in custodial facilities relative to immigrants. And this is a terrible account to listen to what happened to Mr. Ng. Unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident.

And so, we have introduced legislation basically to require the ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which is a part of DHS that runs enforcement, to live up to the policies that they say they already are ruled by. It would require them to actually provide basic medical care to those in their detention. And it would also — the current system allows offsite, non-physician personnel to overrule medical treatment that is ordered by physicians in a facility, who are actually seeing a patient, that would preclude that. And right now, oftentimes they remove lifesaving medication from people who they arrest. That would — it would prohibit them from doing that. We’ve had people who’ve just died, because their medication was taken away when there were taken into custody. It has standards for screening and examination and continuity of care. It’s fascinating that when individuals are moved from facility to facility, their medical records aren’t sent with them. And so, that has caused some severe problems.

AMY GOODMAN: I can already hear Lou Dobbs now, Congress member Lofgren, screaming into the camera, “Can you believe it? We’re giving medical care to illegal aliens in this country!”

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: I’ve been on Lou Dobbs, and it’s not always a pleasure. But here’s the deal. I mean, when you arrest someone, you undertake some basic obligations for their care, and that’s required in our Constitution. You know, when you arrest someone, you have to feed them. That’s because they are no longer able to run down the street to McDonald’s on their own. When you arrest someone and they become ill, you need to provide basic medical care, because they can’t run down the street to the clinic or their own physician. That’s just the standards of decency that nations have, and it applies to the United States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back to this conversation and talk about private prisons overall and follow up on the case of a young man, a boy, that we talked to in Texas in prison — he was nine years old, Kevin — and see what happened to him. He was imprisoned with his family in a private prison. We’re talking to Joshua Bardavid, immigration attorney here in New York, now representing Jason Ng’s family. Jason died in prison. And we are talking to California Congress member Zoe Lofgren. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, Joshua Bardavid, immigration attorney in New York; Congress member Zoe Lofgren in California. She has introduced a bill. She’s chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.

Awhile ago, we interviewed a little boy in prison. Kevin Yourdkhani was nine years old when he and his parents were detained at the Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Taylor, Texas for six weeks. They were flying over the United States on their way to seek asylum in Canada from Iran when there were detained, when there was this unrelated emergency. A person had a heart attack. They landed in Puerto Rico. They didn’t have the proper papers for the United States. They weren’t planning to come here. And they were sent to a detention facility. Kevin spoke to us from the jail last February.

    KEVIN YOURDKHANI: I want to be free. I want to go outside, and I want to go to school. I want to be in my homeland: Canada.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: How are the other children there? Are you spending time with any of the other children?


    JUAN GONZALEZ: They don’t let you spend time with the other children?

    KEVIN YOURDKHANI: No. I’m sleeping beside the washroom, and I can’t — and I’m upstairs. I can’t go to the washroom all the time. And there’s a lot of smell coming out from the washroom. And the food is garbage. And the school is very bad. I can’t learn anything good. And I have asthma, and I got sick in here. I can’t stay here anymore.

    AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, you said you’re sleeping next to the bathroom?

    KEVIN YOURDKHANI: Yeah. And it’s not a separate room. It’s right beside the bed. And I’m sleeping beside the wall, and my back gets sick and it hurts.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin was nine years old when we talked to him. This interview was played all over Canada, hardly got attention in the United States. Ultimately, the Canadian authorities let the family in. What’s happened to him since, Joshua Bardavid?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It’s my understanding that he remains in Canada. He’s a Canadian citizen and had every right to remain in Canada. His parents had a political asylum claim that was reopened upon his return, in large part, I believe, due to the public outcry that surrounded the interview. And it’s my understanding that their legal appeals are still being fought in the courts in Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: And a special thanks to our producer Mike Burke, who got through to that prison, as we were able to talk live to Kevin and his dad Majid in the prison facility on Democracy Now!

While thousands languish in immigration prisons, private corporations contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, like GEO and Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, are making record profits. CCA is the country’s largest private prison company, with strong political connections to both Republicans and Democrats. Together with ICE, they have detained close to a million non-citizens in the last five years.

But an award-winning investigative project by independent journalist Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh at businessofdentention.com reveals there is little oversight of conditions within these prisons. We’re joined now by Renee Feltz, who is here in our firehouse studio, a student at Columbia University School of Journalism, formerly a producer and news director at Pacifica station at KPFT in Houston.

Welcome, Renee.


Thank you, Amy.


Tell us about the prisons.


We looked at the business of immigrant detention. We’ve heard a lot about medical conditions for the detainees there, but we wanted to look at the billion-dollar industry. Essentially, as the immigrant detention population has boomed, the government has turned to the private sector, namely private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America, to provide the detention services. Our investigation at businessofdetention.com looked at the money they’re making and the connections they use to make sure that the profits continue to roll in.


And talk about what you have found, specifically the names of the companies, how they’ve grown, what prisons they run.


The main company we looked at was Corrections Corporation of America. They’re based in Tennessee, but they’ve got plenty of connections in Washington, D.C. Specifically, we found, for example, that one of their main lobbyists, as the boom in immigrant detention beds was occurring, was Philip Perry, who’s the son-in-law of Dick Cheney. He was lobbying for them, went on to become the general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE. And —


He’s married to Cheney’s daughter?


Yes. And then, the next year, CCA saw their highest revenue ever, for example. So, we also looked at their — so that’s one example of their revolving door. This is partly how companies make sure that the government — basically they have the government’s ear.

We also looked at the lobby money that they give to political action committees, for example, and to congressmen. We found that more than half of the senators that they spent money on are actually on the Appropriations Committee, and their most generous donations went to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which oversees funding for these detention centers.


And overall, how many people are incarcerated now?


On an average day, you’ll see about 30,000 immigrants in detention in the United States. About 20 percent of those — and that number is growing — are in large sort of box detention centers, where they hold hundreds to thousands of people, primarily in the South and Southwest, where it’s easier to put people on planes and send them — return them to their home countries.

Essentially, this business has boomed after the government moved from a practice of catch-and-release, as they called it, to a practice of catch-and-remove. And the situation that has resulted has been an increase in the demand for beds, because people are no longer allowed to be free as their deportation hearings are pending or if they have appeals pending. Instead, they’re detained in these facilities, and sometimes for as long as six months.


Sergia Santibanez spent sixteen months —



— at CCA’s Houston processing center, before being deported to Mexico last year. Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh spoke to Sergia from Mexico this year.

    SERGIA SANTIBANEZ: [translated] The conditions there are horrible. Besides that, they treat you like an animal. When you first get there, they tell you you’re nobody. When I got there, the mattresses were torn. They gave us horrible things to eat, which I don’t think were even fit to feed to dogs. The one for immigrants is worse, because I have been in federal prison, and there, they give good food, treat you well, and if somebody complains about bad treatment they say they’ve been subjected to or to discrimination, they pay attention, but not here. Here it’s worse, because they even tell you that you have to put up with it, because we came to them, not them to us, and so we, in the meantime, don’t have a right to anything.


Sergia Santibanez is talking about the Houston detention facility. This is her daughter Luisanna Santibanez.

    LUISANNA SANTIBANEZ: We actually enjoyed visiting her in the federal prison more than we did visiting her in the detention center, because at the federal prison the visitation room was — had a living room-like environment, so we could all sit around a small table. And we could only physically hug my mom before and after the visit, but we could sit there and speak with her for — like for the whole day.

    And we thought that detention center visitation would be somewhat different, if not more open, given that the people in there weren’t actually like convicted of crimes, right? They’re there for immigration proceedings. It was the exact opposite. There, we were divided by the Plexiglas, and we only had thirty minutes to see her. You know, long waiting period. And it was bad.

    Even though, you know, we were sad to see that she got deported, that probably would have to be the most happiest moment of our family’s life in a long time, because for the first time in like two years we would be given the chance to actually hug her and be with her a little bit. And it took her some time to recover. I think anyone who’s been in prison for a long time can tell you about the effects of having to go through that experience. But I would have to say that her detention was probably the most excruciating experience for our family.


Luisanna Santibanez, talking about Sergia Santibanez and her detention. Renee, you had done this interview?


Right. Sergia Santibanez’s case is a classic example of how these detention centers, largely run by private companies, play a key role in ICE justifying its existence. As Congress has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the focus regarding immigration is on enforcement. ICE has to have its numbers ramped up to show how many people they’re deporting, as many as 300,000 last year.

Basically, when they put Sergia Santibanez in this detention center, they refused to release her until she agreed to leave the country. And that’s the case for the majority of detainees that go in there. They never see the light of day, after whatever way that they’re picked up, when they apply for their green cards, during immigration raids, some of them along the US-Mexico border, and they’re there until they agree to leave the country. It plays a key role in the US enforcement policy.


How much lobbying do these private corporations do?


They spend millions a year on lobbying. It’s not surprising, when you look at the disclosure records, you’ll see that they are concentrating, at least in part, on Homeland Security, which is ICE, on immigration issues, on issues that have to do with transparency of what takes place inside their facilities.


Lobbying against?


Yes. And it’s interesting. If you look at the lobbying expenditures of CCA between 2004 and the present, you’ll see a steady increase in the amount that they donate to Democrats. Before, we would see — I looked up the numbers this morning. In 2006, they spent about $4,000 on Democrats; in 2008, $35,000. So you can already see a steady increase. In CCA’s most recent earnings conference call with their shareholders and with analysts, they said that they don’t really anticipate any change in the demand for detention beds, depending on if Senator McCain or Senator Barack Obama get elected; they anticipate that there will still be an increase and a steady demand. In fact, they’ve got 10,000 beds in the pipeline ready for the government, should they want them.


Zoe Lofgren, Congress member from California, how much power do these private corporations have that are running these prisons? How much accountability? And what are you doing about it in Congress?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: Well, I have serious concerns about how detention is being conducted and also the fact that people are over-incarcerated in the immigration system. Take the situation of Mr. Ng, who so tragically died. I mean, this is an individual whose notice for a hearing was sent to the wrong address. Consequently, he didn’t go to the hearing, because he didn’t know about it. To arrest him, as the only result of that, and refuse to let him go, when he has a US citizen wife, a job, owns a home, has two children, is a ridiculous situation. And certainly, his matter needed to be reviewed and sorted through, but there was no need at all, and he should not have been in custody at all. The case of the Iranian family seeking political asylum in Canada, they shouldn’t have been in custody at all. They should have been on their way back to Canada. So, first you have to look at who’s being put into these facilities.


California Congress member Zoe Lofgren, unfortunately, we have to end it there, because the show has come to an end, but we will continue to follow your legislation. Thank you so much to Renee Feltz and to Joshua Bardavid.

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