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Prison Operators' Negligence Caused Trans Migrant's Death, Suit Claims

Roxsana Hernández

The Transgender Law Center and attorneys in private practice, on behalf of a representative of trans migrant Roxsana Hernandez, have filed a federal lawsuit against several companies providing immigration detention services, alleging their negligence led to Hernandez’s death in 2018.

Hernández, a 33-year-old asylum-seeker from Honduras, where she had been raped and targeted by gangs, died May 25, 2018, after being transferred to a hospital from the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately run prison in New Mexico. The officially noted cause of death was complications of pneumonia and HIV, but civil rights groups have said she was abused while in custody and that her death was preventable.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, names as defendants Management & Training Corporation, LaSalle Corrections Transport LLC, Global Precision Systems LLC, TransCor America LLC, and CoreCivic Inc. CoreCivic manages the Cibola center under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal government agency, and the others are ICE contractors that manage other detention centers or handle transportation of immigrants.

“Every private entity tasked with Roxsana’s care failed her,” TLC staff attorney Dale Melchert said in a press release. “What we know about the short time that Roxsana was in immigration custody is that the officers tasked with transporting her saw her health deteriorate, heard her cries for help, and did nothing. She needlessly suffered as a result of their inaction.”

The suit alleges “egregious and unconscionably negligent or willful failure of several private federal government contractors to safely care for Roxsana Hernandez” while she was in custody, which included a trip from San Diego to Milan, N.M., where the Cibola center is located.

“Despite Roxsana visibly exhibiting symptoms of distress associated with her serious medical condition throughout her four-state journey — including nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and severe fatigue — and the persistent entreaties by Roxsana and those with whom Roxsana travelled, these contractors charged with her custody failed or refused to render her the timely care and intervention she required,” the suit says.

She “arrived at Cibola in septic shock, dehydrated, severely tachycardic, medically starving, febrile, and in the early stages of multiple organ failure,” the suit continues, adding that she “was in no condition to be transported or temporarily detained anywhere.”

“Had Roxsana received the proper health care screening within 12 hours of entering custody as required by ICE policy and prevailing standards of medical care, she, more likely than not, would have had a greater chance of survival,” the document says. The failure to provide her appropriate care amounts to discrimination against Hernandez as a person with HIV, contends the suit.

The suit seeks an unspecified amount in damages. The named plaintiff is Joleen K. Younger, appointed representative of the wrongful death estate of Hernandez. In addition to TLC, the attorneys handing the case are from the law office of R. Andrew Free and the law office of Daniel Yohalem.

“CoreCivic, La Salle, and Management & Training Corporation, along with the other private companies named in our lawsuit, receive federal funds in exchange for overseeing all the mechanisms that make our cruel system of immigration incarceration possible,” Free said in the press release. “Through our investigation into Roxsana’s death we’ve learned that these companies violated their federal agency contracts, their own standards of care, Roxsana’s rights, as well as the standards of care in the various states Roxsana travelled through. It’s horrifying that nearly two years after Roxsana’s death, they’re still receiving federal funds without any accountability for the many lives that have been lost on their watch.”

TLC and Free last year filed a Federal Tort Claim Act complaint against the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and ICE listing 10 charges under which the legal groups hold the agencies and their contractors responsible for Hernández’s death.

Also, several lawsuits have been filed against CoreCivic in recent weeks involving the prisons it operates. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class action lawsuit naming CoreCivic and demanding it ensure that the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex complies with public health guidelines to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. Additionally, two detention officers at Otay Mesa Detention Center have filed lawsuits against CoreCivic for creating a dangerous workplace and failing to protect them from the virus.

In April, TLC, Ballard Spahr LLP and the Rapid Defense Network filed a class action lawsuit demanding the release of all transgender people in civil immigration detention so that they may take precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic. “The filing included testimony from trans migrants currently in immigration detention that make it clear that the abhorrent conditions that Roxsana was subjected to are still the norm,” the TLC press release states.

Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement has declared May 31 Trans Migrants Day, with a week of action for trans migrants beginning May 25.

“Everyone deserves to be cared for in a crisis,” Umi Vera, Familia’s campaign and organizing director, said in the TLC release. “Roxsana came to the U.S. in search of safety and protection, and instead was met with cruelty and more violence by immigration enforcement. This year, in Roxsana’s memory we are uplifting, honoring and celebrating trans migrants by declaring Trans Migrants Day on May 31. Together we are advocating for a future in which all trans migrants are treated with dignity and respect, which means putting an end to immigration detention and abolishing ICE.”

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