Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How the good tailor became a statistic

BOUBACAR BAH was a tailor from Guinea, who came to the United States hoping for a better life, following in the steps of a seafaring relative who had arrived in New York in World War II.

With his skills, Boubacar obtained work sewing dresses for a posh clothes store called L'Impasse. He shared an apartment with other immigrants, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. People liked him. On Sundays he would go and visit cousins who had a house in the Bronx. He was able to send money home to his ailing mother and other family members back in Guinea.

After living and working in America for eight years, Boubacar thought he would go back to Guinea for a holiday, and see the folks he had left behind. It was when he returned from this three months trip, in May 2006, that he ran into trouble with the immigration officers at Kennedy Airport. They told him his green card application had been rejected while he was away, and that he no longer had permission to re-enter the United States.

While an immigration officer hired by his friends tried to re-open the application, Boubacar Bah spent nine months in detention. Then one morning in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey, at about 8am, according to the records, Mr.Bah fell near a toilet, hitting the back of his head on the floor.

He was taken to the facility's medical service, where he became incoherent and agitated, textbook signs of an intracranial injury. He was handcuffed and shackled, and he began yelling in his native language. He was ordered to calm down, and when he did not, was written up for disobeying orders and was taken into solitary confinement in shackles. As this was taking place, Mr. Bah uttered his last known words in his native tongue: "Help! They are killing me!"

Shortly after this, the video record ends (guards claimed the camera's battery failed). Mr. Bah was taken to an isolation cell and locked in at 9 AM. According to the guards, he appeared to be sleeping for the next ten hours, but at 7:10 PM, he appeared to be breathing heavily and foaming at the mouth. The nurse on duty at that time refused to come see Mr. Bah. More than fourteen hours after the initial incident, while on rounds, an ICE nurse found Bah unconscious with vomit around his mouth. The nurse attempted to revive Bah with smelling salts and failed, and brought Bah back to the medical unit on a stretcher. At 11 PM, someone at the ICE detention facility called 911.

When Mr. Bah arrived at the hospital, it was quickly determined that he had a fractured skull and hemorrhages at all sides of his swelling brain, and he was rushed into surgery. Back at the ICE center, the coverup began.

The following day, the ICE center at Elizabeth reported the cause of Mr. Bah's injury as "brain aneurysms" - corrected a week later to "hemorrhages" with no mention of the skull fracture or fall. Meanwhile, Mr. Bah's friends and family were ignorant that Bah had been injured for four days after the incident, only learning of it when another inmate at the facility called Mr. Bah's roommate to inform him.

It was another day before the facility disclosed Bah's location to the family, where a guard told them: "This guy, you have to fight for him. This guy was neglected."

Alerted by a lawyer, a New York Times reporter began making inquiries.

Michael Gilhooly, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Times that without the inmate's full name and eight digit Alien Registration Number, he could not check the information. But according to records obtained now by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Times, Gilhooly instead notified his superiors at the agency about the reporter's inquiry, and Gilhooly and other managers in Washington and New Jersey conferred repeatedly on how to conceal the circumstances of Mr. Bah's injuries, as well as how to avoid having the agency responsible for paying for Mr. Bah's continued care. Among the conspirators was Capt. Nina Dozoretz, CEO of Correctcare Consultants LLC and formerly the Division of Immigration Health Service’s Associate Director, which put her in charge of the over 20,000 inmates in ICE custody.

They considered sending the dying man back to Guinea to avoid responsibilities. Then they decided to release him to his relatives on "humanitarian", compassionate grounds. Boubacar Bah died in a coma on May 30, 2007, a few days before he was due to be sent home.

Boubacar Bah was just a tailor. Just an immigrant. Just another statistic.

The New York Times says its investigations over two years have uncovered wholesale cover-ups by officials. "Documents, obtained over recent months by The Times and the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act, concern most of the 107 deaths in detention counted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement since October 2003, after the agency was created within the Department of Homeland Security.

They do say that if you want to know the truth about any society you must go into its prisons.

Thanks to Sue Pashkoff for drawing my attention to the Daily Kos blog with Boubacar Bah's story

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