Washington Post series examines errors in psychiatric diagnoses, medications of detained immigrants

The Washington Post as part of a four-day series, titled "Careless Detention," is examining how some immigrants to the U.S. do not receive needed health care while in immigration detention centers.

The Post on Tuesday in the third article in the series examined how immigrants in detention centers who are mentally ill are "relegated to the darkest and most neglected corners of the system," and some "undergo months and sometimes years of undermedication or overmedication, misdiagnosis or no diagnosis." For example, the Post reports that some immigrants are "labeled psychotic when they are not" and that "all they need are interpreters so they can explain themselves."

According to the Post, suicide is the most common cause of death in immigrant detention centers, and "suicide attempts seem to be on the rise." Since 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency took over immigration detainment centers in the U.S., 15 of 83 immigrant deaths were suicides. Internal documents obtained by the Post show that there were 16 suicide attempts in June 2007, 21 in July 2007 and 20 in August 2007.

Although the Division of Immigration Health Services does not have a firm estimate of the number of mentally ill immigrants in the detainment system, internal documents obtained by the Post estimate that about 15% of about 33,000 detainees on any given day, or about 4,500, have a mental illness. That estimate is higher than the publicly disclosed mental illness rate given by ICE, according to the Post. In addition, the Post reports that internal documents show that the number of mentally ill immigrants in detainment centers is on the rise.

Dennis Slate, a top mental health official in the immigrant detainment system, said that the increasing number of mentally ill immigrants in the system has pushed the ratio of staff to mentally ill detainees far lower than in other prison settings. Slate in a May 31, 2007, memo wrote that there is one staff member to 1,142 mentally ill detainees in the immigrant detention system, compared with one to 400 in the Bureau of Prisons and one to 10 in prisons for people with mental illnesses (Priest/Goldstein, Washington Post, 5/13).

The Post also profiles five of the 15 detainees who have committed suicide since 2003 (Goldstein/Priest, Washington Post, 5/13).

WAMU's "The Diane Rehm Show" on Tuesday in the first hour of the program was scheduled to include a discussion about the Post series and medical care for detainees. Scheduled guests included Dana Priest, a Post investigative reporter and co-writer of the series; Amy Goldstein, national social policy reporter for the Post and co-writer of the series; Gary Mead, acting director of detention and removal operations for ICE; and Tom Jawetz, immigration detention staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project ("The Diane Rehm Show" Web site, 5/13).

Kaisernetwork.orgThis article is republished with kind permission from our friends at The Kaiser Family Foundation. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, search the archives, or sign up for email delivery of in-depth coverage of health policy developments, debates and discussions. The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for Kaisernetwork.org, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Copyright 2007 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.


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