Letter: ACLU, doctors group demand better care for CBP detainees enduring substance withdrawal

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In this file photo, Pete Flores, San Diego Director of Field Operations addresses national media outlets at the San Ysidro Port of Entry regarding details of Operation Secure Line. He is joined by Rodney S. Scott, San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent; Hunter Davis, Director of Air and Marine Operations in San Diego; and Lt General Jeffrey Buchanan, Commander US Army North. (Courtesy CBP)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) ⁠— In a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the ACLU and a physicians group demanded revised and strengthened policies and procedures for individuals experiencing substance withdrawal at ports of entry.

The ACLU Border Rights Center, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and Physicians for Human Rights on Monday called for CBP to ensure prompt and appropriate medical care, “while these individuals detoxify from a variety of controlled substances, including prescribed medications.”

Citing several reports of individuals undergoing forced detoxification without treatment or adequate medical supervision, the letter states that CBP is putting their lives in danger.

Furthermore, the letter says the agency is violating its policy and federal standards of medical care regarding detoxification for detainees, which the organizations say adds to the risk of self-harm.

The organizations argue that:

  • Failure to provide accommodations to individuals undergoing detoxification violates federal regulations that protect people with disabilities, including those with substance use disorder.
  • CBP must have trained staff, medical professionals, and properly equipped on-site medical facilities.
  • CBP must have qualified medical staff to institute medical intake screening and treat detainees accordingly.
  • The agency should set a limit on the length of detention for individuals with serious medical conditions and accommodate access to medical care.
  • The agency must substantially reform its existing written policies to reflect a commitment to providing proper care for detained persons.

One of the incidents highlighted in the letter involved Gulf War combat veteran Marc-Oliver Lewis, who according to court records was detained for four days in February 2019 the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Records show Lewis “repeatedly informed CBP officers that he had previously been using high doses of alcohol and heroin, and he began experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms shortly after he was taken into custody.”

A lawsuit filed against the Department of Homeland Security alleges that CBP never provided Lewis any medical care.

“While in CBP custody, Mr. Lewis experienced headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, racing heart, palpitations, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches, muscle pain, joint pain, bone pain, anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, insomnia, and depression,” the letter states. “He was in so much pain that he was unable to get off the ground to drink water, which exacerbated his symptoms. Mr. Lewis’s documents reveal that he had more than 24 hours of tachycardia (fast heart rate), which is often among the initial vital signs associated with dehydration and acute withdrawal. He endured this suffering for three days without access to any doctor, nurse or other medical providers, and consequently to medications that could mitigate the complications of acute withdrawal and prevent potential severe or permanent injuries that can result from alcohol and opiate withdrawal.”

Border Report reached out to CBP seeking comment on the letter and the request by the organizations’ request for a written response from CBP.

In a statement to Border Report, a CBP spokesperson said, “CBP does not comment on matters that are currently under litigation.”

The letter to CBP said that while cases they highlighted below focus on detoxification and withdrawal-related complications, “the reforms proposed herein will also benefit individuals with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, who likewise are endangered by CBP’s current practices.

“It is essential for the public health of our community to ensure that CBP employees with control over vulnerable individuals in their custody have sufficient instruction, training, and resources to be able to prevent the serious complications that accompany substance withdrawal and other chronic conditions,” the letter states.

The organizations requested that CBP provide a written response on or before Oct 17, 2019, explaining CBP’s plans for addressing the issues they described.

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