Cuban dies of Covid-19 in prison after medical negligence

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In May 1980, Félix Repilado Martínez left Cuba with tens of thousands of others in a mass migration via a boat lift to what he believed was a better life in the United States. Almost exactly 40 years later, on May 18, 2020, he died in U.S. government custody at age 67, after contracting Covid-19 at the North Lake Correctional Institution, a private prison in Michigan.

Martínez was one of hundreds of non-citizens serving federal sentences at the Taft private correctional facility in California who were transferred to North Lake in March and April as Taft prepared to close. The interception had previously reported that North Lake had not been prepared for the influx, and California transfers – none of whom were sick with the coronavirus before the move – have been put at risk.

The two establishments were part of a secret network of federal prisons overseen by the Bureau of Prisons but operated by private contractors. Called criminal prisons for extraterrestrials, or CARs, they only hold non-U.S. Citizens who could be deported at the end of their sentence. They are not ICE prisons, but they often have ICE annexes and staff who take care of people at the end of their sentence, and they are the only BOP prisons that are privately run. For North Lake, the operator is the GEO Group, a publicly traded holding company and one of the two largest such companies in the United States. These prisons often escape scrutiny, falling between the realms of immigration and criminal justice. Deaths of immigrants detained in CARs do not appear in ICE statistics, and the coronavirus crisis at these facilities has been poorly noted.

Interviews with Martínez’s cellmate and others in the facility, his family members and relevant documents show that for Martínez the decision to move him to North Lake was part of a pattern of mismanagement and neglect that ultimately cost him his life. First, his symptoms were barely treated, and then, while he remained breathless in his cell, fellow inmates said that a nurse and guard were far too slow to call for help. As another incarcerated in North Lake, Omar Jdaitawai, put it: “Believe me, if they’re doing business, he’s still alive today.

Félix Repilado Martínez.

Photo: Courtesy of Elaine

After arriving at Florida, Martínez rebounded in Texas and Minnesota before settling in Washington State, first in Tacoma and then in Seattle. He met Elaine – who requested that her full name not be used for privacy reasons – at a music club in 2015, and they quickly became close. “Our relationship was not typical, because of the company he was in, which everyone knew. He didn’t want me to be a part of this, ”she said.

This business was the drug business, which he had fallen into after unsuccessful efforts to enter a more mainstream field. Elaine attributes this to Martínez’s undiagnosed ADD and depression, his childhood in poverty, and the chronic lack of opportunity offered to an Afro-Latino in Cuba, where his great passion was folk dancing. He had been charged by the state before being arrested by DEA agents for federal possession of crack in March 2018.

The arrest hit particularly hard because Martínez had a son who was seven at the time, whose mother was also in prison. The boy lived with his maternal grandmother, but Martínez looked after him a few days a week. “He felt that the worst thing about being put in jail was that he had lost that connection with his son. He didn’t care about himself, he felt remorse, ”said Elaine. “He swore it would never happen again. “

“Before I could even write the letter, he was dead. “

Once it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic was a serious threat to those incarcerated in prisons, and especially the elderly, Elaine and Martínez’s adult daughter Feliz decided they were going to give it a try. to have him released for humanitarian reasons. His public defender, Elaine, “wanted me to write a letter to the judge and say that with his age and health” – Martínez had heart disease – “he was going to die if he didn’t get out of there. I can write the letter, he was dead.

In Taft, the California prison, Martínez had seemed in good shape and in good spirits; his acquaintances there remember a gregarious man focused on changing his life in the time he had left. “Everything was perfect with Mr. Martínez, but as soon as we got here” – in North Lake – “maybe a week and a half, two weeks, we pretty much all got sick,” said Javier Miranda, who knew him in Taft. .

Like several others who were showing symptoms of Covid-19, Martínez was taken to a separate unit where people were monitored and subjected to temperature checks, although very little treatment. At one point his condition worsened so quickly that he was taken to hospital, but after about a week and a half, according to his former cellmate Roberto Guerrero, he was returned to the hospital. general population, without being definitively told whether it has the virus or not.

“He said they wouldn’t tell him, they took the test but wouldn’t say if he had it. … They took him to the sick area, they called him quarantine, where they took everyone who got sick, but he told me that all they gave him was Tylenol and he said to drink water, ”Guerrero said.

“When he returned, a blind man would see that he is still sick,” Jdaitawai, who had also known Martínez to Taft, told Taft.

In a note written to GEO staff and dated April 22, about three weeks after the move to North Lake and nearly a month before his death, Martínez wrote that he had “an unusual allergy to a dry nose, aches and pains. … Suffering from severe pain and my left and right I see blood and my sputum. … I need to see the doctor soon, it’s possible. I need help with the brifts.

“He called me before he died, about a week, and said, ‘Everything hurts, everything hurts and I can’t eat, I haven’t eaten for a week. Her voice was awful, ”Elaine said. “He was sick, sick, sick. He said, ‘I’m not ready to die.’ “

In the early afternoon of May 18, Martínez was using the toilet when he began to have trouble breathing. Guerrero, his cellmate, noticed it and called for help. A guard arrived quickly, followed by a nurse. It was then that things started to go wrong. The nurse was trying to convince Guerrero to translate his questions into Spanish as Martínez screamed in a hoarse voice that he couldn’t breathe. After a while, the nurse and guard attempted to carry him to his cot, but instead dropped him to the ground, where he began to pass out.

According to Guerrero, it was about 10 minutes before additional emergency medical personnel were called. He estimated that a total of about 45 minutes had elapsed between the first calls for help and the time Martínez was taken to hospital. “For me, it was an act of medical negligence, and I spoke to the authorities about it,” he told The Intercept. “The reaction I witnessed was very slow, like they didn’t know what to do.”

Two other witnesses to the incident confirmed Guerrero’s account that there was a significant delay between when the nurse and guard showed up and when Martínez was carried on a stretcher, without reacting.

After Martínez’s death, the staff of the GEO group gave misleading information about what had happened. Guerrero said he was told Martínez died on his way to Cadillac Hospital, about a 45-minute drive from North Lake. He and others also said prison staff later claimed Martínez died of cardiac arrest. “They came back here to clean up, said, ‘We did everything in our power to keep him alive, but we lost him and he didn’t have coronavirus,'” Jdaitawai said.

Elaine said something similar was said to her: “The folks at the Prison Office said, ‘Oh, we took so good care of him.’ They said he went into cardiac arrest.

However, in response to questions from The Intercept, the Mid Michigan Medical Examiner Group – which serves as the chief medical examiner for several counties, including Lake County, where North Lake is located – issued a letter clarifying that Martínez had died in inside the prison infirmary while the result of “[b]Ilateral pulmonary thromboembolism associated with COVID-19. “

Martínez’s death was part of a larger culture of indifference to the health of men incarcerated in North Lake.

A spokesperson for the GEO group passed detailed questions to the BOP, which did not respond. Donald Emerson, who was the director of the prison at the time and informed Martínez’s family of his death, declined to comment when reached by phone. According to sources inside and outside the prison, Emerson was fired at the end of July. Her replacement, Angela P. Dunbar, a long-time former BOP official, has been named in various lawsuits brought by people under her supervision, including medical negligence at a prison she supervised. (Dunbar could not be reached for comment.)

What is clear is that Martínez’s death was not fluke, but part of a larger culture of indifference to the health of the men incarcerated at North Lake. The Intercept is aware of at least one other coronavirus-related death at the facility, and several men inside have described equally sluggish response times to all manner of medical issues. One of them described having a terrible headache for hours on end one evening and being ignored when he called for help; medical staff did not respond until he began to vomit, around 3 a.m. Another had an untreated arm fracture. Guerrero said he had waited weeks to undergo surgery for a rare sickness called paraphimosis, which is considered a medical emergency that can cause permanent damage to the penis if left untreated.

About two weeks ago, other transfers from Taft staged a hunger strike to protest the medical treatment as well as spoiled and irregular meals, lack of privacy and other issues. There were apparently some minor concessions, and it’s possible that Emerson’s dismissal had something to do with the complaints. Yet many do not expect the conditions that led to Martínez’s death and the rapid spread of the disease to fundamentally change. “Because you are not a US citizen they are laughing at us,” Jdaitawai said. “They just have to get the money, and that’s it. Until then, whatever happens to us, let it happen.

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