When Detainment Centers Become Death Houses

| 8/22/2008 1:57:45 PM

Last week’s New York Times detailed the tragic case of Hiu Lui Ng, a New Yorker of 17 years who died a grisly death after his cancer and fractured spine went insistently undiagnosed at a detainment center in Rhode Island. This week, the paper followed up with a similar story of a detainee who crossed paths and cells with Ng; Marino De Los Santos lived to tell his tale (and file a lawsuit). The July issue of KoreAm recounts the cases of two women—one who died in custody, the other still ailing there—and their thwarted attempts to receive proper care. And in an extensive investigation back in May, the Washington Post weaved the narratives of several detainees—many who died, some who survived abysmal care—into a withering dissection of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaucracy fatally unequipped to meet the post-9/11 demands hastily placed upon it.

In the past five years, the Post found, 83 detainees have died in custody or soon after being released. Thirty of those deaths, according to analysis and expert reviews arranged by the Post, may have been caused by the actions, or inaction, of medical staff. “The detainees have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons and some have fewer comforts than al-Qaeda terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” the Post’s Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein wrote.

I’ve often wondered at the unwitting and anodyne adoption of the word “detainee” in the years since September 11, 2001—its easy migration from referring to “terrorists out to kill us” to aspiring immigrants and asylum seekers swept up in the bowels of a frightened, misguided bureaucratic reflex. “Detainee,” it seems, is meant to delineate someone outside the criminal justice system per se, someone whose case awaits judicial review. “It’s not like we’re throwing folks, in prison, see; they’re going to detainment centers.” The words roll of the tongue and the conscience.

But as the dismal state of medical affairs at the publicly and privately run “detainment” facilities shows, it’s time to start calling things by their right names. Perhaps if people “detained” because of paperwork glitches (which played a crucial role in Ng’s situation) or people denied proper medical care because of software errors (see Yusif Osman’s case in the Washington Post) were reported as being sent to “death houses” or “disease centers,” our linguistic faculties might be triggered into focus, and with them our moral compass.

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