U.S. wants out of suit over Chinese detainee’s death

By Eric Tucker
The Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The alleged neglect and death of a terminally ill Chinese immigrant detained in a Rhode Island jail two years ago triggered scathing reports and investigations. There has been a wide-ranging federal lawsuit and hand-wringing over who was responsible.

A judge will hear arguments this week on whether the federal government bears culpability in the August 2008 death of Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng, 34, who was accused of overstaying a tourist visa and detained at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls for the last month of his life.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is one of about two dozen defendants in the lawsuit and seeks to be dismissed on grounds that staff members at the jail are contractors — not government employees. But lawyers for Ng’s family see the federal government as a critical target that should be held accountable, especially since it’s responsible for enforcing immigration law.

Advocates for immigrants’ rights say Ng’s death and similar cases raise troubling questions about uneven oversight of detention centers, especially those like Wyatt that are privately run and lack clear lines of accountability when something goes wrong.

“That death highlights a larger trend and cry for greater transparency, improved medical care, and legally enforceable detention standards,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law.

Federal immigration authorities say more than 100 immigration detainees have died since 2003, and human rights groups for years have accused ICE of providing insufficient and negligent medical care.

A 2008 internal review concluded that ICE could do a better job of overseeing detainees’ medical treatment, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano more recently identified improving the detention system as a priority.

Ng, a computer engineer from New York with a wife and two young sons, came to the United States in 1992 at age 17 with his parents and sister. He was taken into custody years later and died of advanced liver cancer that went undiagnosed until days before his death. He was also diagnosed with a spinal fracture.

His family and an ICE inquiry allege that he was abused in the month he spent at Wyatt and was denied access to adequate medical care. They say he was dragged screaming by his arms, mocked by staff who accused him of feigning illness, and denied a wheelchair, even though he was unable to walk and complained of agonizing back pain.

ICE spokesman Brian Hale said the agency takes any allegations of inadequate medical care seriously and has recently taken steps to improve oversight of immigration detention.

“ICE leadership has stressed to all who work with the detainee population that they have a serious responsibility to ensure that all people in its care are treated in the most thoughtful and humane manner possible,” Hale said in a statement.

Napolitano in October announced proposed detention reforms, including classifying immigrant detainees according to the risk they pose.

ICE, which at the time was contracted with Wyatt to hold immigration detainees awaiting deportation, has acknowledged Ng was mistreated. It pulled all 153 of its immigration detainees from the jail in December 2008, terminated its contract, and issued a report lambasting Wyatt staff.

ICE says it can’t be legally responsible since Wyatt staff members are contractors.

But lawyers for Ng’s family say federal immigration and homeland security employees are to blame as well.

They say the federal government knew or should have known that Ng was being mistreated and showed indifference to his medical condition.

The government’s argument is a troubling attempt to punt responsibility and “have it both ways,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit.

“Only the government has the ability to lock people away, and yet it wants to wash its hands of any responsibility of what happens once people are detained in these facilities,” Brown said. “It only increases the severity of the problems because of the total lack of accountability.”

U.S. District Judge William Smith will hear arguments Wednesday. It’s not clear when he’ll rule.

Wyatt, which bills itself as an “economic engine” for the city and state, opened in 1993 as a quasi-public detention center operated by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation. It continues to hold federal defendants awaiting trial as well as wards of the U.S. Marshals Service.

The facility has been in turmoil since Ng’s death. Board members have been replaced and staff members have been fired. The loss of the ICE contract has undercut its financial security and a criminal probe is under way.

Wyatt spokesman Bill Fischer declined to comment.

The suit seeks punitive and compensatory damages. Besides the government, it also names as defendants individual Wyatt staff members who allegedly mistreated Ng as well as other detention facilities where he was held before Wyatt.

“It’s not simply about damages, it’s about accountability and it’s about ensuring that a very, very flawed system can be fixed,” said Fidelma Fitzpatrick, a lawyer representing Ng’s family.

“This doesn’t have to happen to another family or another immigrant like Mr. Ng.”  ♦

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