Hell on American Soil

The Washington Post has a series of investigative stories about medical care of people being held in the immigration system. It is a stunning picture of incompetence, arrogance, and cruelty. It's not a media hatchet job, either; the facts are well-documented and the government admits some of the worst abuses.

Obviously we have a problem with illegal immigration, and people who are in the process of being deported need to be kept in custody. No one is arguing that they deserve luxury accommodations. At the same time, common human decency as well as an array of laws and treaties demands that prisoners be treated humanely. Part of that is proper medical care. Some of the worst failures have to do with mental illness:

Doctors and nurses who often have difficulty detecting and treating physical ailments are having even greater problems managing the nuances of mental illness, documents and interviews show. Treating mental illness is a challenge in any context, but inside this closed, overburdened world, some psychiatric patients undergo months and sometimes years of undermedication or overmedication, misdiagnosis or no diagnosis.

The records reveal failures of many kinds. Suicidal detainees can go undetected or unmonitored. Psychological problems are mistaken for physical maladies or a lack of coping skills. In some cases, detainees' conditions severely deteriorate behind bars. Some get help only when cellmates force guards and medical staff to pay attention. And some are labeled psychotic when they are not; all they need are interpreters so they can explain themselves. [more]

While those who truly are mentally ill get little or no treatment, perfectly sane people are routinely dosed with powerful psychotropic medicines so they can be more easily transported to other countries.

In a Chicago holding cell early one evening in February 2006, five guards piled on top of a 49-year-old man who was angry he was going back to Ecuador, according to a nurse's account in his deportation file. As they pinned him down so the nurse could punch a needle through his coveralls into his right buttock, one officer stood over him menacingly and taunted, "Nighty-night."

Such episodes are among more than 250 cases The Washington Post has identified in which the government has, without medical reason, given drugs meant to treat serious psychiatric disorders to people it has shipped out of the United States since 2003 -- the year the Bush administration handed the job of deportation to the Department of Homeland Security's new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE.

Involuntary chemical restraint of detainees, unless there is a medical justification, is a violation of some international human rights codes. The practice is banned by several countries where, confidential documents make clear, U.S. escorts have been unable to inject deportees with extra doses of drugs during layovers en route to faraway places.

Federal officials have seldom acknowledged publicly that they sedate people for deportation. The few times officials have spoken of the practice, they have understated it, portraying sedation as rare and "an act of last resort." Neither is true, records and interviews indicate. [more]

What a classic example of governmental incompetence. The ICE is - or claims to be - incapable of providing basic care for people whom everyone agrees have serious psychiatric problems. Meanwhile people who are not mentally ill get the drugs that are unavailable to those who really need them.

It appears that most of these cases occur when ICE deports people on commercial airline flights. This seems to me like a bad idea for a number of reasons. For one thing, it has to be very expensive; tickets to places in Africa and Asia for a prisoner and two or three escorts aren't cheap. The story mentions one incident where the prisoner was in seat 4-A, which is probably first class. It might be cheaper to just to let them stay here.

If I were one of those prisoners, here is what I would do. As soon as they got me aboard, I would start shouting "Allah Akbar!! All of you are going to die!!" No doubt the needle would hit me a few seconds later, of course, but it would be fun to see the other passengers fight to get off the plane.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading the stories linked above. We should not be surprised that such things happen here. In a culture that tolerates the murder of 4,000 babies each day, allowing prisoners to suffer like this is relatively minor. So next time you sing "God Bless America," ask yourself: why should He?

(Hat tip to Mike for the heads-up.)

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