Investigation Reveals the Secret Deaths of Dozens at Privatized Immigrant-Only Jails

Dozens of men have died in disturbing circumstances inside these facilities in recent years.

Photo Credit: FCI Big Spring/Wikimedia

The investigation published in The Nation magazine documents more than 100 deaths at private, immigrant-only prisons since 1998. The investigation's author, Seth Freed Wessler, spent more than two years fighting in and out of court to obtain more than 9,000 pages of medical records that private prison contractors had submitted to the Bureau of Prisons. We speak to Wessler about his piece, "This Man Will Almost Certainly Die."
Watch: Video and full transcript below: 
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a shocking new investigation about private prisons and the dozens of men who have died in disturbing circumstances inside these facilities in recent years. The investigation, published in The Nation magazine this month, documents more than 100 deaths at private, immigrant-only prisons since 1998.
The investigation’s author, Seth Freed Wessler, spent more than two years fighting in and out of court to obtain more than 9,000 pages of medical records that private prison contractors had submitted to the Bureau of Prisons. The documents are stunning. They reveal more than two dozen cases of inadequate medical care that independent doctors say contributed to the premature deaths of the prisoners. One man died shackled to his bed from an undiagnosed HIV-related infection in his brain. Other men died from lack of medical care for cancer and liver disease. Several men were denied adequate mental health treatment and went on to commit suicide.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the Democratic presidential candidates are increasingly speaking out against multimillion-dollar private prison contracts. In September, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to ban government contracts with private prison companies at the federal, state and local level within three years. In October, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pledged to ban the use of private prison companies. The Clinton campaign later said it would stop accepting money from lobbying groups linked to private prisons and that it would donate the money it had already received.
Well, to talk about this and more, we’re joined by the author of the new investigation, Seth Freed Wessler, reporter with The Investigative Fund, his new story for The Nation called "This Man Will Almost Certainly Die."
Seth, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain the title, "This Man Will Almost Certainly Die."
SETH FREED WESSLER: That title comes from a quote that was left in one of the medical files I obtained through an open records request. I obtained 9,000 pages of documents. And in those documents, from one of these prisons, there was a medical doctor who left his normal medical notes, but he also left a series of notes railing against the system that he had—he worked in, inside of one of these private federal prisons, private federal prisons used only to hold noncitizens convicted of federal crime—a sort of segregated system of prisons. In these files, he left a series of notes where he was railing against this prison system, basically saying that it wasn’t providing prisoners, or wasn’t allowing him to provide prisoners, the kind of care that as a medical doctor he believed he should be able to provide. These records tell the stories of 103 men who died inside this federal subsystem of prisons.
If you’re convicted of a crime in the United States, a federal crime, and you’re a noncitizen considered a low-security prisoner, you’re likely to be sent to a different prison from all of the rest of—from citizens. And those prisons are nearly the only prisons that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has privatized, has contracted out to private companies—GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation.
And what I found is that the federal government is applying a different and less stringent set of rules to these prisons. And that, in the context of medical care, is leading to stripped-down kinds of medical clinics with lower-trained, lesser-paid, less expensive workers. And in dozens of cases, prisoners held inside are facing medical neglect. In 25 cases I looked at, doctors who reviewed the files said these prisoners likely would have lived had they received adequate medical care.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Seth, could you—how did these develop? In other words, what’s the rationale for them segregating off the noncitizens into separate prisons? And also, talk a little bit about the evolution. When did they begin to flower or develop as a form of institutionalization of inmates?
SETH FREED WESSLER: Sure. So, private prisons, in general, they have existed for decades. But it took until the ’90s, the late ’90s, for the Bureau of Prisons to begin privatizing. The Bureau of Prisons had resisted privatization until the late ’90s, when the Clinton administration proposed in its 1996 budget request a plan to privatize a subset of federal prisons, to see if in fact they could save money. This was a time when the Clinton administration was promising not to expand the size of the federal workforce, but also prisons were growing. So, when prisons grow, federal prisons grow, usually that means more workers. The solution they found was to privatize federal prisons.
Well, very soon, as these prisons started to open, the federal government began to incarcerate only noncitizens inside of most of its federal prisons that have been privatized. The logic is, as recently as 2014, the Bureau of Prisons said that noncitizens are an ideal group of people to hold in privatized federal facilities that have somewhat fewer resources and services, because these people will later be transferred to immigration authorities and deported, after they serve their time. So they’ve explicitly said that these are sort of stripped-down facilities.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But you’ve also noted that a lot of the people that are incarcerated are basically—the crimes they’ve committed is re-entry into the United States, not necessarily—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —an actual crime here in the U.S.
SETH FREED WESSLER: That’s right. In fact, 40 percent of the people inside of these prisons are incarcerated for the criminal offense of crossing over the border. In the early '90s, 4,000 people were prosecuted criminally for crossing over the border. By 2013, at the peak of these prosecutions under the Obama administration, 91,000 people were prosecuted criminally for illegal entry or illegal re-entry, for crossing the border—something we usually think of as a civil offense. You know, usually, people are detained and deported as a result of crossing the border without papers. But we've started to incarcerate, sometimes for years, tens of thousands of people.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, these are not the immigrant detention facilities.
SETH FREED WESSLER: That’s right. These are a different system. So, Immigration and Customs Enforcement oversees immigration detention. There are additional 23,000 people in a separate prison system that’s overseen by the Bureau of Prisons used to hold noncitizens. And I uncovered stories of people who were facing incredible kinds of medical neglect, men who complained of illness for, in one case, two years and was never seen by doctor. This man, Claudio Fagardo-Saucedo, was actually never tested for HIV, despite the fact that there were signs that he should have been, and that federal rules would have it that he should have been. He was never tested for HIV, 'til he became so sick that he fell down. He was so weak that he fell down while walking in the prison, and he was sent to a local hospital, tested positive for HIV, and died days later of an AIDS-related brain infection. It's just sort of staggering levels of neglect.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to your interview, Seth, with Dr. John Farquhar, the former clinical director at the Federal Correctional Institution in Big Spring, Texas. This was featured on Reveal, a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
DR. JOHN FARQUHAR: There were times when I was critical. I’m a critical person, starting with myself.
SETH FREED WESSLER: You actually wrote at one point, "I feel bad for his shabby care."
DR. JOHN FARQUHAR: Well, I stand by that statement. I don’t know who it’s about, and I can’t comment on any single record of any person. But there are times when the care was not what I wanted for any patient, period.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Farquhar went on to suggest the contractors asked him to cut down on number of 911 calls made out of prison.
DR. JOHN FARQUHAR: They said, you know, "Is there a way that we can cut this down?" And I said, "Probably, yes."
SETH FREED WESSLER: I could imagine that could result in a pressure to not call when somebody really needs to go to the emergency room.
DR. JOHN FARQUHAR: That’s always the risk. That’s why professional judgment takes professional training and professional experience, because you can’t leave it up to anybody.
AMY GOODMAN: In this clip, we hear Russell Amaru, a physician assistant at Big Spring. He was on the call the night a prisoner named Nestor Garay had a seizure or a stroke. Garay spoke about the facility’s high reliance on LPNs, or licensed practical nurse.
RUSSELL AMARU: There would have been a more aggressive care for that patient, and other patients, too, if we had better training, better staff. It’s just so many things are wrong there. You had an LPN right out of school, new in corrections, trying to make an assessment. He did not have the skills. I don’t blame them as a person; I blame the management system that puts him in that position. Basically, what you have, in essence, is people that are undertrained doing jobs that they shouldn’t be doing. We do not have an infirmary for 24-hour observation. Charts are often temporarily lost for a couple of days or a week or so. And so, the companies that I work for, they’ve got the model of how the place is supposed to be run, and they seem to allow it. And I know you want to ask me: What I would do to correct the problem? I’d close this whole facility down, and I’d start over again.
AMY GOODMAN: "I’d close this whole facility down," says Russell Amaru, a physician assistant at Big Spring. Seth, "This Man Will Almost Certainly Die," your piece, dozens of men dying in disturbing circumstances in privatized, immigrant-only prisons—where is this all going?
SETH FREED WESSLER: Well, the Bureau of Prisons has made a decision that they aren’t going to apply the same rules and standards to privatized prisons used to hold immigrants that it applies to the rest of its prison system. That means that these private companies are free to determine how they’re going to provide care. One of the ways that that happens is by employing lesser-trained, less expensive workers, as the person we just heard talked about. This is a subsystem of federal prisons that’s run by the Bureau of Prisons, and there are real questions about why it is that there is a separate, segregated system of federal prisons for noncitizens, segregated on the basis of citizenship, where people are suffering really incredible kinds of medical neglect.
We continue our conversation with journalist Seth Freed Wessler, who spent more than two years fighting in and out of court to obtain more than 9,000 pages of medical records that private prison contractors had submitted to the Bureau of Prisons.
Watch: Part 2 of the investigation
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest for Part 2 of our conversation is Seth Freed Wessler, who has spent two years now investigating private immigrant prisons. Did you know they exist? We’re not talking about immigration detention facilities, which are also jails and prisons, but we’re talking about this, within the Bureau of Prisons. His piece is called "This Man Will Almost Certainly Die." Dozens of men have died in disturbing circumstances in privatized, immigrant-only prisons. The Bureau of Prisons itself says there’s a problem, yet the privatization scheme continues.
Seth, you start off with Claudio Fagardo-Saucedo. You told us his story in the show, a man who would die after being in this prison. Tell us other stories that you discovered.
SETH FREED WESSLER: Yeah, these files that I obtained through the open records request are striking, because they tell the stories of the final months and weeks in the lives of 103 men who died inside of these prisons.
We heard in the show Russell Amaru, the physician’s assistant, describe the care that a man named Nestor Garay did not receive. This is a man who I write about in my story in The Nation and who is covered in this episode of Reveal from the Investigative—from the Center for Investigative Reporting, a podcast. And Nestor Garay, one night at about 1:30 in the morning, his cellmates, nine of them, in a small cell in Big Spring, Texas, in a private prison in Big Spring, Texas, heard him moaning, pained moans coming from the top bunk. And they called for help from a guard, and the guard came and saw that he was not responding and that—the fellow prisoners were reporting that he had had a seizure.
So, the guard called for medical backup. And the man who arrived was a licensed vocational nurse, or a licensed practical nurse, who has about a year of training and who was the only person working in the medical unit that night at the prison. He called Russell Amaru, the physician’s assistant, and according to Amaru, he simply didn’t have the knowledge, the medical knowledge, to know what he was seeing in front of him. His skills weren’t up to responding to a major medical emergency.
And so, instead of sending him to the emergency room, which is what every doctor who read this file said should have happened absolutely and immediately, he was brought back to a different cell and left on the ground until morning, by which point his face was drooping, and it was clear that he had had a stroke. By the time he finally got to the hospital, where he could be treated—seven hours later, at least—the neurologist who saw him, who I interviewed in the hospital, told me it was too late, that the time to respond would have been when the prisoners asked for help. In fact, the prisoners said, "Send this man to the hospital." But the prison didn’t do that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the epic battle you had to get these records. How—what kind of resistance did you come up across? And when you say 103 deaths, what period of time are we talking about here?
SETH FREED WESSLER: So, I had filed an open records request, a Freedom of Information Act request, several years ago. And I thought that I was going to get documents from that request. I talked to people in the BOP’s FOIA office, and it seemed that it was moving. But a year passed and then two, and I realized that I wasn’t going to get any of these documents. I had asked for the medical records of people who had died. It took filing a lawsuit in federal court to compel the federal government to compel the Bureau of Prisons to move. And last year, I started to receive these files—which were later unredacted, in significant part—that told the stories of men who had died. The files also included the internal investigations and death reports for each of these men who died. And in many cases, the prisons themselves, the private contractors themselves, acknowledged in these reports that there had been failings.
In one case, the prison company, Management and Training Corporation, contracted to have a after-action report conducted, in anticipation of litigation. That litigation never happened. In fact, this family didn’t know that their—the mother, who’s in Mexico, didn’t know that her son had died for nearly a year. And when I called her, when I found her and I talked to her, she still didn’t know that her son had been locked up for illegal re-entry. That is, she said to me, "I thought he had done something terrible to land in a federal prison in the United States." But, in fact, I told her why he was locked up.
This is a man who arrived at the prison very rapidly. It was very clear that he was entering into a state of real distress, hallucinating. He said that voices—he was hearing voices that told him to break a window. And he received no substantive mental healthcare, and then he killed himself in this prison, even after he wrote on an intake form that he had been taking drugs for mental illness, that he had committed—attempted suicide in the past, and a medical—a low-level provider saw that he had tried to cut himself previously.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And isn’t, in effect, part of the reason why this has continued is that precisely because they are noncitizens, and their family members are probably not even in the country—I mean, that there’s no possibility of a lawsuit occurring—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —to make those responsible pay for what they’ve done?
SETH FREED WESSLER: I mean, prisons, in general, are very difficult places for journalists to access and very difficult places for families to reach. You know, we hear stories all the time about how difficult it is for families to visit their loved ones in faraway jails and prisons. But these families are sort of doubly cut off, because their relatives are both locked up and on the other side of a border, or, if they’re in the United States, very often their loved ones don’t speak—the family members don’t speak English. And so, there are incredible barriers to access. So these men really do disappear kind of twice into this system. And so, when these deaths happen, they happen silently. And so this story is an attempt to tell some of these stories of men who died in a system that—as I said in the show, are held in prisons that are held to different standards, lower standards.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And where are these prisons?
SETH FREED WESSLER: The prisons are all over the country, but four of them right now are in Texas. Two are in Georgia, one in Mississippi, one in California and several others in other parts of the country. There was another, a fifth prison in Texas, but last year it was shut down, because prisoners in that facility—and I reported on this for The Nation last year—prisoners in that facility began a protest over medical conditions and other issues. That protest exploded into a riot after prison officials used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up the protest. And the prison was destroyed. The federal government called it uninhabitable. So, it took, in that case, a riot, actually, to shrink the number of beds in the system.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many men and women are held in these prisons?
SETH FREED WESSLER: These prisons are actually only men. Women who are noncitizens are mainstreamed into the regular Bureau of Prisons systems. There are now 23,000 men in this subsystem, this separate subsystem of federal prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: So, last year, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation aimed at banning government contracts with private prisons. He said banning for-profit incarceration is the first step to ending the system of mass incarceration.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: As a first step, we need to start treating prisoners like human beings. Private companies, private corporations should not be profiteering from their incarceration.
AMY GOODMAN: In July, Lee Fang of The Intercept wrote a piece for The Intercept, "Private Prison Lobbyists Are Raising Cash for Hillary Clinton." He wrote, quote, "As immigration and incarceration issues become central to the 2016 presidential campaign, lobbyists for two major prison companies are serving as top fundraisers for Hillary Clinton.
“Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group could both see their fortunes turning if there are fewer people to lock up in the future. ...
“Clinton and other candidates revealed a number of lobbyists who are serving as 'bundlers' for their campaigns. Bundlers collect contributions on behalf of a campaign, and are often rewarded with special favors, such as access to the candidate.
"Richard Sullivan, of the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel, is a bundler [for] the Clinton campaign, bringing in [like more than $44,000 in a few months. He] is also a registered lobbyist for [the] Geo Group, a company that operates a number of jails, including immigrant detention centers, for profit."
That was Lee Fang’s report from The Intercept. So, how this all relates to Republican and Democratic politics?
SETH FREED WESSLER: Well, what’s clear is that the president, whatever administration has power—is in power, has the power to decide whether the Federal Bureau of Prisons is going to continue to contract prisons. These prisons, a number of groups are calling for a roll-down of contracting. And as the federal prison system begins to shrink for the first time, the population of federal prisons is—prisoners is beginning to fall, there are real questions about whether beds will start to be pulled out of that system. And some people argue that the first beds to go should be these contract facilities that operate under separate rules, under separate standards and under lesser rules and standards.


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