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Medical Care Inside U.S. Prisons For Immigrants

Pecos Enterprise, Smokey Briggs / Courtesy of The Nation
At least five times since 2008, inmates have rioted in the BOP’s contract prisons. The unrest has often come after medical care complaints. ";
Medical Care Inside U.S. Prisons For Immigrants

The number of people being prosecuted for illegally crossing the border has risen drastically over the last couple of decades. And the penalty can include lengthy stays behind bars. But where do all these inmates go? 

The federal Bureau of Prisons contracted with private companies to run 11 facilities that jail male offenders. They’re just about the only privately run federal prisons in the country. One of them is in New Mexico’s Cibola County and has more than 1,000 inmates. It’s operated by the Corrections Corporation of America.

KUNM caught up with Seth Freed Wessler, a reporter for the Investigative Fund, about his work uncovering the substandard medical care inside these prisons for immigrants in the U.S.

KUNM: So, the government created a separate kind of class of prisons in which there are different services and different regulations. You think that’s fair?

WESSLER: Yes. I think that’s fair to say. That system isn’t obligated to follow the same set of rules that a prison that say I might go to as a citizen if I were convicted of a crime and similarly classified as a low-security prisoner.

What I found in the process of my reporting is that these prisons operate under a sort of separate and, in many ways, less stringent set of rules than the rest of the federal prison system.

KUNM: Right, and you point out that the lack of specificity within the contracts makes it so that it’s harder to check in and say that there have been violations.

WESSLER: Yeah, that’s right. Unless it’s in the contract, it’s not a rule. So monitors find that they are in some cases unable to force them to make changes that are necessary—often changes that are important for prisoner safety and well-being—because there’s nothing in the contract that requires the facility to do a set of things.

The companies say, the fewer rules you impose, the less expensive we will be. And the sort of concept of private prisons is to save money. Research does not show that ultimately, there are clear savings. But what we do see over and over again is that medical care is suffering from cost-cutting.

KUNM: So let’s talk about what are some of the real impacts of these cost-cutting measures and policy decisions, and regulations or lack of regulations.

WESSLER: I issued an open records request to the federal government and asked for the medical record of everybody who had died inside as a prisoner of one of these contract prisons for noncitizens. When I received these records, I received about 9,000 pages of medical records. And in each case asked physicians, asked medical doctors, to take a look at these files and to review them rigorously, and to render an opinion on whether the care that prisoners received had been adequate and if that care had contributed to deaths.

And in a third of the cases that doctors were able to review, they said that the medical care that these men received was not only inadequate but that those inadequacies had very likely contributed to the premature deaths of people who might well be alive today had they received medical care that anybody should receive.

KUNM: Are there any lawsuits pending as a result of these deaths?

WESSLER: No, not currently. So, in one case a man died and the company that ran the prison performed an investigation of his death. It was a suicide. And the company wrote in investigative files that I obtained in my FOIA, you know, that the investigation of his death was done in anticipation of litigation.

But this family didn’t actually learn of the death for months and months after it happened.

One of the things that is striking is that many of the relatives of people who are locked in these prisons are doubly cut off from their families. Prisoners in general are sort of disappeared in some ways. Families are often really separated from them. It can be very hard to get access.

But these families are very often in other countries, usually in Mexico, or if they’re in the U.S., sometimes don’t speak English or don’t speak English very well, and feel very much like they’re severed from what’s happened to their relatives.

KUNM: All right, and do you think you have more reporting to do on this topic? Do you have more stories that are going to spin out of these records you’ve obtained?

WESSLER: Yeah, there is. This work is ongoing. There’s other questions I’m trying to dig into for sure, so look out for more work.


Seth FreedWessler's Stories: 

Sick on the Inside: Behind bars in immigrant only prisonsReveal

'This Man Will Almost Certainly Die' —The Nation


KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Con Alma Health Foundation.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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