(KGTV) -- Two recently filed civil lawsuits claim the government is not providing adequate medical care to some U.S. citizens in its custody.
The lawsuits allege that dozens of individuals’ medical needs were deliberately ignored by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents, and Americans were forced to undergo life-threatening and torturous detox in temporary holding cells at the border.
10News spoke with several people who blamed an overwhelmed system, saying Customs and Border Protection doesn’t have the resources to deal with the demand. They say rather than taking people they arrest who are addicted to drugs or alcohol to a hospital or nearby medical facility they were put in holding cells and ignored.
"If they keep this up there's a good chance that they are going to put someone in the basement [who] is not going to make it through,” said San Diego attorney Brody McBride.
McBride represents a U.S. citizen named Marc Oliver Lewis.
According to court documents, Lewis was arrested at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry in February, accused of trying to bring a non-U.S. citizen into the United States illegally.
Two months after his arrest, Lewis sued the government claiming he repeatedly told the defendants (unknown agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) he had been using high doses of alcohol and heroin. The lawsuit states, “even though Mr. Lewis began experiencing objectively severe symptoms of detox and withdrawal from alcohol and heroin, Defendants never provided Mr. Lewis with the medical care required to treat his serious medical needs while Mr. Lewis was in Defendants custody.”
McBride said within several hours of his arrest, Lewis started experiencing the beginning effects of alcohol and heroin withdrawal including restlessness, headache, and muscle pains, among other symptoms. He said DHS officials transported Lewis to the Metropolitan Correction Center
(MCC), a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility, but officials there rejected Lewis and recommended he be taken to a hospital for immediate medical attention. DHS instead returned Lewis to a DHS holding facility at or near the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry.
“They put him in a holding cell with up to 20 other individuals and just basically ignored him,” McBride said.
According to his lawsuit, Lewis started to experience severe detox and withdrawal symptoms, including difficulty breathing, chest tightness, racing heart, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
"He was in so much pain he couldn't get up to use the bathroom unassisted, you know he ended up vomiting on himself, defecating on himself,” McBride said. “Meanwhile the officers provided no treatment.”
McBride said Lewis was transferred to an isolation cell, but was left in his soiled clothes without a bed, shower or medical attention for four days at which time he was eventually transferred to MCC.
Team 10 obtained transcripts for a federal court hearing related to Lewis’ criminal case. According to the transcripts, after listening to the alleged conditions of Lewis’ detention, Chief Judge Hon. Larry Alan Burns said, “It seems to me these are things that, you know, reasonable people, whether prosecutors, defense attorneys, or judges or officers for that matter would say, yeah, we don’t want somebody sitting around in clothing in which they’ve defecated. We’re not going to do that. That’s not a humane thing. This is not some third world country where we treat prisoners like that. So, we’ll get them a change of clothes, we’ll let them shower.”
Burns also said, “I think some adjustments need to be made in the case of people that are coming down from narcotics withdrawal.” He added, “I think the government is in a position where they’re vulnerable probably to civil claims that they have – if they don’t do that to civil liability for being indifferent to somebody’s medical needs under the circumstances.”
According to the transcript, Burns said he didn’t believe he was authorized to issue orders that would create change, but did suggest that he agrees there’s a problem that can be fixed.
McBride said it isn’t just one person being treated badly. He also represents a woman by the name of Amanda Sams who is suing the government.
According to federal documents, Sams was also accused of trying to bring a non-U.S. citizen into the United States illegally.
After her arrest, Sams told agents she was an alcoholic and an addict, McBride said.
Her complaint against the government alleges the night she was arrested, Sams began experiencing the initial effects of detox and withdrawal. It states officials tried to transport her to MCC but, “given Ms. Sams’ obviously unstable medical condition, MCC officials rejected Sams and recommended that she be taken to a hospital for immediate medical attention.”
McBride said officers instead “took her back to this facility at the border where they put her in a cell in the basement and left her there for four days.”
Sams was not seen by a doctor, nurse, or other medical provider to treat her life-threatening detox and withdrawal symptoms, McBride said.
According to her lawsuit, “At several points, defendants even closed the small window to her cell to silence Ms. Sams’ continued pleas for medical attention. Defendants told Ms. Sams, ‘You’re not our problem.’”
"They are entitled to a base standard of medical care if the government is going to arrest them and hold them in custody,” McBride said.
More people detoxing at the border?
Documents obtained by Team 10 show more than just the two people suing the government have gone through detox at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry.
Team 10 obtained what’s known as the “No Body Active List” or “Federal Defender No Body Report.”
According to court filings “By 9:00 a.m. each day, the Government shall provide a list to the duty Magistrate Judge and Federal Defender of all persons arrested before 6:00 a.m. that day, but who will not be arraigned that day. The Government shall also provide the reasons for the delay and the location of the defendants. The Government is therefore required to provide the No Body Active List by order of the Court.”
A No Body Active List from March of this year shows two additional people involuntarily detoxing from heroin were kept at the San Ysidro Port. Team 10 investigator Adam Racusin has also seen other No Body Active Lists from different dates showing other people marked as detoxing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Team 10 tried to get all No Body Active Lists from the start of this year, but so far, the United States Attorney's Office has not turned them over, saying they aren't public documents.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tells Team 10 “CBP cannot comment on matters that are currently under litigation.”
The spokesperson sent 10News an agency-wide policy that describes nationwide standards, which govern CBP’s interaction with detained individuals. While officials wouldn’t comment, transcripts from a hearing related to Lewis’ criminal case describe some of the conditions and protocols at the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry.
According to the transcript, a supervisory enforcement officer over the criminal enforcement unit testified that detainees are observed every 15 to 20 minutes, but the welfare check does not involve checking vitals, such as blood pressure or heart rate.
The supervisor testified that there are medical personnel at the port including physician assistants. When asked roughly how many hours of the day are covered by a physician assistant, the supervisor testified “it varies from day-to-day depending on their schedule, but I know they are there for a majority about 16 to probably 20 hours a day.” She also noted there is a physician they report to who is either on-site or they’re able to contact by email or call.
When asked by the court if there is any different protocol followed by personnel at the port once someone is returned from the MCC, rejected for medical reasons, the supervisor answered: “Our normal protocol is that we then immediately ask for space at API (Alvarado Parkway Institute). We try not to hold them at the port. We hold them at the port for the minimum amount of time that we can.” The judge then asked “In this case, I was told there was no space” to which the supervisor responded. “Correct.”
In court for a different criminal case where a detainee has alleged a lack of medical treatment, an attorney for the government told a judge that procedures have been changed.
She said now, people who are brought back to the port are seen by a physician assistant every shift, which is every six to eight hours.
Team 10 spoke with an addiction specialist who said people suffering from withdrawal should be checked and monitored more than that.