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An Ailing Immigrant Wasted Away as a Federal Detainee

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An Ailing Immigrant Wasted Away as a Federal Detainee

The Death of Basil Cuffy

by Alisa Solomon

August 27 - September 2, 2003

"I'm calling regarding Basil Cuffy," a voice at the other end of the phone told Jacqueline Hoyte of Brooklyn last Wednesday. She remembers being surprised. In the nearly two years her husband had been held in immigrant detention at the Berks County jail in Pennsylvania, this was the first time an official had called about him. Cuffy was dying, he told her, and they wanted to know whether she would be the one to collect his body.

Hoyte says the shocking message didn't sink in at first. In June, she had driven five hours to Berks County with their daughter Venetia, 17, to visit Cuffy and had been pleased to see him "looking so fine—thin, but fine." She told the man on the other end of the phone that she would come out to see Cuffy on Saturday, her next day off work. "Ma'am," he replied, "he's not going to live that long."

True enough. Basil Cuffy passed away just before midnight on August 20, two weeks after his 40th birthday. According to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, formerly the INS), he is at least the ninth detainee to die in ICE custody this year.


Cuffy died with his left wrist shackled to a bed in Reading Hospital, and with an armed guard stationed at the door to his room. The cause, according to the Berks County coroner, was liver failure resulting from hepatitis. Hoyte questions how his hepatitis could have become so severe and why she wasn't notified earlier of his condition. "When I saw him in June," she says, "he said he'd had a sore on his nose for a while and they were giving him medicine for it that made him feel sick. I wonder if it was giving him side effects that hurt his liver."

Cuffy's medical records have not been released to anyone, though Hoyte has asked to see them. She speculates that he might have had HIV—"he had a lot of girlfriends," she concedes. Medical personnel at the jail and at the hospital would not discuss his case with the Voice. Hoyte fears that she will never be able to determine whether he was being helped or hurt by his medical treatment in custody.

Michael Gilhooly, director of public affairs for the eastern region of the ICE, insists that Cuffy "received proper medical care" and adds, "The Immigration Service works with our colleagues in the Public Health Service and appropriate medical facilities and personnel to make sure people in our custody receive the care they need. We take this very seriously." Cuffy was transferred to Reading Hospital sometime in mid August.

But advocates of immigrants say that whatever the immediate medical cause, Basil Cuffy also died of the chronic infirmities of immigration policy. Congress passed harsh laws in 1996 that mandated detention for virtually all "criminal aliens"—noncitizens convicted of committing crimes—and also expanded the list of crimes deemed deportable offenses. That created a sudden surge in the numbers of detainees, who were crowded into jails that weren't always properly equipped to handle them. Post-9-11 crackdowns since then have made it even harder for detainees to win release.

The sweep of Muslim and Middle Eastern men in the wake of the WTC attack drew wide attention to the practice of immigrant detention for a time. But the system—and its myriad problems—did not spring into being after 9-11. On September 10, 2001, there were some 20,000 people in deportation proceedings being held in administrative detention by Immigration authorities. Now, according to the ICE, the number on any given day is 21,000, the vast majority of them "criminal aliens." Like the general prison population, most have committed drug-related offenses. Many pleaded guilty, hoping for shorter prison terms, not realizing that they would end up facing deportation and doing even more time in ICE detention.

Cuffy came to the United States legally from his native Guyana in 1991 to join Hoyte, who had already "come up here to establish myself." A U.S. citizen (whose mother is also a citizen), Hoyte secured permanent residency for Cuffy, whom she married in 1989. Family life was good during those early years. Cuffy found work as a security guard, and at home he did the cooking. Tall, slender, and jovial, Cuffy was a suave ballroom dancer who competed in championships.

But within the family's first year together in Brooklyn, says Hoyte, "I started seeing some strange behavior." Cuffy would come home on payday without his check, "making up some excuse, like he lost it." One day he told Hoyte the devastating truth: He was addicted to crack. When he started stealing things from the house to support his habit, Hoyte kicked him out, even going so far as to get an order of protection against him. "He was out of control," she says, "and I was so angry." When he'd get treatment, she'd take him in; when he'd fall back into his old crowd and addiction, she'd show him the door. One day in 2001, he called from Rikers, having been busted for the second time on a drug charge. Some months later, he called from Pennsylvania. Despite his green card, he was deportable as a "criminal alien" and had been sent directly to Immigration jail in Berks County, one of dozens of jails and prisons that rent out beds to the Immigration Service. According to the warden, George Wagner, the 100 immigrant detainees currently held there live in their own ward, separate from the 1,150 in general population. The on-site, 20-bed medical unit serves both groups, providing, says Wagner, "very sophisticated" care. He estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the overall population is HIV-positive.

But the federal Division of Immigration Health Services prefers that those detainees with serious chronic illnesses, such as HIV, be housed in the ICE's own detention centers. Several officials at Berks declined to discuss the particulars of Cuffy's case, and would not say whether anyone had recommended moving him to one of these jails.

Over the past six months, Cuffy was beginning to waste away. He'd gone into the jail's infirmary in February to be treated for a cyst on his arm and was kept there for about a month and a half in an isolated cell, according to Jen Esposito, a volunteer coordinator of a biweekly arts workshop at the jail in which Cuffy participated. Fellow detainee Randall Sackie, a Liberian who was granted asylum and released at the end of June after 19 months at Berks, also recalls Cuffy's stint in the medical unit. "He looked perfectly healthy for a long time," says Sackie, "but when he got out, he was real skinny." In a letter to Hoyte dated March 19, 2003, Cuffy complained, "I am losing weight and I eat every day. I don't miss a meal."

He went back to the medical unit in July, and Esposito, who visited him there on the 31st, recalls, "I had to bend down and speak to him through the food door of his cell. The cell was about six by 12 feet and his eyes were yellow. He told me he wasn't receiving any treatment. The food door was encrusted with food and there were flies all over it. A terrible smell came out of his cell—it was not well ventilated."

Esposito went on vacation, and when she returned on August 14 other detainees told her that Cuffy had been taken to the hospital. It took her five days of wangling before officials allowed her to visit him there. "He moaned and couldn't speak," she says. "He held my hand and sometimes seemed to be able to focus." Hours later he was dead.

It didn't necessarily have to turn out that way. Although, like as many as 90 percent of immigrant detainees, Cuffy lacked consistent legal representation, an immigration judge granted him relief this past January, ruling that he could stay in the U.S. and retain his green card—an indication, immigrant attorneys say, that the judge did not regard him as a flight risk or a danger to the community. But the government appealed the decision and was holding him in detention as the case went forward. The judge set an unusually low bond of $2,500. Hoyte, a home health aide coordinator in Brooklyn, says she had been "trying to get it together. It's a lot of money."

According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees appeals, briefs from both sides were received on March 24. But nearly five months later, no decision had been rendered, no action taken.

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