SAN DIEGO – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have agreed to provide immigration detainees with constitutionally adequate levels of medical and mental health care as part of an agreement to settle an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit charging that deficient care at the San Diego Correctional Facility (SDCF) caused unnecessary suffering and death.
As part of the settlement, ICE has also agreed to change its policy on medical care that had led to the denial of what ICE deemed to be "non-emergency" care, including heart surgeries and cancer biopsies.
"For the first time, ICE has committed to providing all necessary health care to immigration detainees beyond just emergency care," said Elizabeth Alexander, former Director of the ACLU National Prison Project and lead counsel on the case. "For too long, ICE's own policies allowed it to provide detainees with nothing beyond a narrow definition of emergency. This settlement is recognition that it is unconstitutional not to provide people in government custody with all necessary health care."
Among the settlement agreement's provisions are requirements that detainees at SDCF receive health care that meets or exceeds National Commission on Correctional Health Care standards and that an additional full-time psychiatrist and four full-time psychiatric nurses be hired to ensure that detainees receive adequate mental health care.
The settlement also requires immigration officials to remove from existing policies all statements suggesting that detainees will receive only emergency medical services and to include in the same policies explicit statements mandating that detainees shall be provided medical care whenever it is necessary to address a serious medical need.
Originally filed in June 2007 by the ACLU, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties and the law firm Cooley LLP, the complaint stated that detainees at SDCF were routinely subjected to long delays before treatment, denied necessary medication for chronic illnesses and refused essential referrals prescribed by medical staff.
The lawsuit specifically cited the cases of 11 detainees, including several whose bipolar disorders and depression went untreated, a man who was forced to wait more than eight months for eye surgery and nearly suffered permanent disfigurement and detainees who never received medical attention despite suffering from a variety of maladies including Type 2 diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, abscessed and broken teeth and severe chest pains.
"The government has a fundamental obligation to provide decent medical care to the people it locks up. The quality of medical care provided to detainees at the San Diego Correctional Facility has been unconstitutional," said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "Immigration officials must ensure that immigration detainees do not suffer or die unnecessarily."
The lawsuit charged that the refusal of immigration officials to provide appropriate medical care punished immigration detainees in violation of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering on federal detainees. Because SDCF holds civil immigrant detainees not serving a criminal sentence, the Fifth Amendment applies to protect their civil rights.
"This is a major step toward ending the unconstitutional and inhumane lack of treatment given to the civil immigration detainees at SDCF," said Anthony M. Stiegler, litigation partner at Cooley LLP. "It is at odds with our American values to allow people to suffer long-term health consequences or even death because authorities refuse to treat them."