For nearly 11 months, Francisco Castaneda asked officials at the immigration detention center where he was being held to treat a lesion he worried might be cancerous.
Though several doctors repeatedly said Castaneda urgently needed a biopsy, government officials allegedly refused to authorize one, calling it an "elective" procedure, according to court records — treatment that a federal judge in Los Angeles has said appears to be "beyond cruel and unusual."
Castaneda died last month, after penile cancer spread to his lymph nodes. While in immigration custody, instead of a biopsy, he was allegedly treated with ibuprofen, antihistamines and extra boxer shorts when his lesion began to bleed on his clothes, according to government records cited in a recent court decision that allowed Castaneda's family to sue the government.
"Everyone knows that cancer is often deadly. Everyone knows that early diagnosis and treatment often saves lives," Judge Dean Pregerson wrote. "Defendants' own records bespeak of conduct that transcends negligence by miles. It bespeaks of conduct that, if true, should be taught to every law student as conduct for which the moniker 'cruel' is inadequate."
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said she could not comment on ongoing litigation, but noted that the agency spent nearly $100 million last fiscal year on medical, dental and psychiatric care for detainees.
The number of immigrants detained has more than tripled, from about 95,000 in 2001 to more nearly 300,000 last year — and providing them with health care has been a recurring challenge for the government. At least 64 immigrants died in ICE custody between 2004 and 2007, Gary Mead, ICE's assistant director for detention and removal, told Congress last year.
A separate lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU on behalf of other detainees at the San Diego detention center where Castaneda was held claimed that medical treatment was routinely delayed or denied in order to reduce the cost of care. The immigrants in that case said they were denied medications for months and that chronic illnesses such as diabetes were inadequately monitored. In one example, a detainee said he was denied treatment for a cut to his foot until it developed gangrene and doctors recommended amputation.
Government reports have found that more than half the requests for emergency medical care from detainees in the San Diego facility took more than three days.
"It's clear that the care that they were providing is woefully inadequate on a systemic basis," said Conal Doyle, the attorney representing Castaneda's family. "This is a remarkable example of bureaucracy that is completely broken and people who are making decisions that are heartless."
Castaneda served several months in prison on a drug charge before he was transfered to immigration custody because he was in the country illegally.
Judge Pregerson wrote that the medical records cited by Castaneda's lawyers suggest that immigration officials purposefully mischarracterized his condition to avoid treating him. If Castaneda's evidence proves true, Pregerson wrote, his care "can be characterized by one word: nothing."