Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and committee… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Legislation that would make it more difficult to cover up the causes of deaths in jails, prisons and private detention centers appears poised to pass Congress after years of unreported abuse, particularly in facilities housing immigration detainees.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which would make it mandatory for all public and private prisons, jails and boot camps to report deaths and their causes to the Justice Department. The measure has already passed the House with bipartisan support.
The attorney general would be required to analyze and publish a report within two years of the law's enactment on what caused the deaths, something American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Jesselyn McCurdy said she hoped would shed more light on cases in which medical and administrative personnel are more concerned about saving money than saving lives.
The law "would make it more difficult to cover up the causes of deaths in custody — they can't be brushed off as death from natural causes or suicide as easily," McCurdy said.
Since October 2003, at least 124 low-security, "short-term" detainees have died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
Advocates point to the 2007 death of Boubacar Bah, 52, after a nine-month fight against deportation, as an example of the problem.
According to the internal memos of a private detention facility run by Corrections Corp. of America in Elizabeth, N.J., Bah, who was from Guinea, was found writhing in his cell after falling and fracturing his skull a little before 9 a.m. one day.
He reportedly moaned, vomited and grabbed at medical personnel, but was transferred not to a hospital but to a solitary cell. The same signs of distress prompted guards to call for medical attention again at 7 and 8 p.m., but by the time an ambulance picked him up at 10:50 p.m. and took him to a hospital, he had entered a coma that lasted four months, until he died.
Documents show that during Bah's coma, prison officials considered transferring him to Guinea before he could die to save money and avoid media attention. When it became apparent there were not sufficient medical facilities in Guinea for the transfer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement recommended that he be given legal status so that the agency would no longer be responsible for his medical bills.
The ACLU and the New York Times sued under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records on Bah and others like him.
ACLU immigration lawyer Joanne Lin said she didn't think she'd had her last fight to uncover such detailed information about detainee deaths. Federal authorities were supposed to be reporting deaths to the Justice Department during the entire time the ACLU was suing for documents.
"We don't think it's a panacea, but it will still improve government accountability and transparency in the Justice Department about more facilities, and that's certainly something. It will close a few loopholes," Lin said about the new legislation.
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said all immigration detention centers had more oversight since 2009.
"ICE has taken aggressive steps to increase oversight through announced and unannounced inspections, regular facility visits from ICE staff and by hiring more than 40 detention services managers, who work to ensure appropriate conditions exist at detention facilities," Christensen said.