Detainees make their way through the Otay Mesa Detention Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A nationwide class-action lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S District Court for the Central District of California has highlighted even more problems with medical care at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and other immigration detention facilities throughout the country.

The new lawsuit – brought by a group of immigration and civil rights groups on behalf of 15 individuals detained in six states – challenges the habit of federal officials to delay and deny medical care. It also alleges that Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel have been using solitary confinement as a punitive measure and discriminating against people with disabilities.

In the complaint, Al Otro Lado, an organization that provides legal aid to immigrants and works at the Otay Mesa and Adelanto detention facilities, says medical neglect and inadequate treatment have severely impacted the work they do.

The organization estimates that staff is diverting at least one-third of its resources to clients with untreated or unaccommodated medical conditions in immigration proceedings. Sometimes, the organization says, staff even pay for medical examinations and treatment for asylum-seekers and migrants in detention.

Last week, Voice of San Diego published a story documenting medical complaints and cases of inadequate medical care at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego County. Allegations in the new lawsuit build upon a long history of alleged medical issues. In 2017, as ICE began detaining people for longer periods of time, the Union-Tribune detailed several complaints about medical treatment in the facility, and in February 2018, more than 70 detainees from the facility signed a letter condemning conditions in Otay Mesa. Back in 2007, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, which was settled years later, that alleged detainees were “routinely subjected to long delays before treatment, denied necessary medication for chronic illnesses and refused essential referrals prescribed by medical staff.”

The new legal complaint lays out several more instances of medical neglect at Otay Mesa.

One asylum seeker detained at Otay Mesa was repeatedly denied treatment for severe back pain, according to the complaint. Facility guards forced her to walk without a mobility aid despite her repeated complaints. She fell, further injuring herself, and now must use a wheelchair.

Another person detained at Otay Mesa complained of hemorrhaging for over two months and was repeatedly ignored until she fainted. Then, she was taken to the hospital, where she had a blood transfusion in the hospital parking garage.

A third detained individual at Otay Mesa experienced pain in her abdominal area for five months, according to the complaint. She was finally taken to the hospital, in shackles, for an ultrasound, and she was told she had uterine fibroids and needed to see a gynecologist. Upon returning to the detention center, she was given ibuprofen and told to wait for an appointment. As of March 2019, she had been waiting two months for the appointment, despite complaining repeatedly to facility staff about vaginal bleeding.

Deaths in Detention

The complaint also includes Igor Zyazin, who died of a heart attack while detained at Otay Mesa on May 1, 2016.

Zyazin had been previously detained at the Emerald Correctional Management San Luis Regional Detention Center in San Luis, Arizona.

While there, Zyazin informed staff that he had a significant medical history of heart disease and that he was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, but instead of sending him to the emergency room, the complaint notes, an ICE officer decided to transfer him to Otay Mesa. On April 29, 2016, prior to transferring him, a nurse at the San Luis facility managed Zyazin’s acute chest pain by administering nitroglycerin without a doctor’s order – an action that independent medical experts for Human Rights Watch later found was dangerous and “a major breach of her scope of license and one which requires reporting to the state board.”

Upon arrival at Otay Mesa later that day, Zyazin told a nurse that he was experiencing chest pain, but no follow-up occurred, according to the complaint. The next day he was seen by a doctor, who failed to recognize that Zyazin had suffered a heart attack. That evening he was found unresponsive and attempts to resuscitate him failed.

Two medical experts who reviewed Zyazin’s case on behalf of Human Rights Watch found that his death was likely preventable. The complaint says that the San Luis nurse’s management of Zyazin was “severely deficient…. Further, by filling out a transfer note, the nurse was erroneously stating that the patient was stable enough for transfer, whereas sending him to the hospital for appropriate care could have saved his life.”

The complaint also highlights 2018 testimony from a wrongful death suit brought by the family of another individual who died in custody at Otay Mesa, where a former CoreCivic training officer at Otay Mesa said that short-staffing at the facility hindered officers’ ability to notice when detained individuals required medical care and a referral to the medical unit.

Transfers Between Facilities Cause Problems in Getting Medical Care

The complaint also highlights issues that have come up when individuals are transferred between detention facilities.

One of the plaintiffs, Alex Hernandez, has had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder for several years.

When he was initially transferred to ICE custody, he was detained at Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Bakersfield. After an MRI, Hernandez was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. An orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery to repair his shoulder.

But instead of scheduling the surgery, according to the complaint, ICE transferred him to Otay Mesa in 2017. His medical records were not transferred with him, and he restarted the process of getting treatment for his torn rotator cuff, despite reporting the previous tests and recommendations to the medical staff at Otay Mesa. He had another MRI in late November 2017 and a CT scan in January 2018. It confirmed the same diagnosis he received at Mesa Verde.

He received physical therapy and cortisone shots that temporarily helped, but the pain and limited range of motion persisted, according to the complaint. Finally, in December 2018, an orthopedic surgeon he saw at Otay Mesa recommended surgery.

Shortly after Hernandez was recommended for surgery a second time, he was transferred yet again—this time to Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama in December 2018, according to the complaint. Again, his medical records were not transferred. For the third time, he had to restart the diagnostic process to receive treatment for his shoulder.

After a third MRI in a third facility, an orthopedic surgeon recommended surgery to him again in late April 2019, but it has yet to be scheduled.

“Mr. Hernandez has not received any information as to when he will be able to have the operation,” reads the complaint. “As a result, he continues to experience severe pain in his shoulder and has a limited range of motion. He fears that his injury will worsen due to the lack of treatment.”

In another case outlined in the complaint, Petra Albrecht, who had fluid in her heart and a gastrointestinal perforation among other issues, was transferred to Adelanto from Otay Mesa, where she had an appointment to see a specialist.

The Adelanto medical staff told her that because she had moved to a new facility, they would have to “start over” with tests and medical care. Albrecht later became unconscious while detained in Adelanto, during what she believes was a heart attack, according to the complaint.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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