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Louisiana ICE facility staff response to detainee’s seizure captured in audio recording

Vehicles are parked outside of the LaSalle ICE Processing Facility in Jena, Louisiana.
Rashah McChesney
Gulf States Newsroom
LaSalle ICE Processing Facility is the subject of a new complaint from an immigration detainee who alleges that he has been neglected, abused, gotten questionable medical care and been sexually assaulted while in detention at the Jena, Louisiana facility.

On April 6, during a legal aid visit to the Central Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, Monica Cornejo, a Cornell University professor acting as a volunteer interpreter, witnessed detainee Daniel Cortes De La Valle’s skin turn pale and speech begin to slur. She said Cortes De La Valle then fell to the ground. He was having a seizure.

Cornejo said what happened after that shocked her.

“The nurses were just casually walking, [with] no sense of hurrying,” Cornejo said in an interview for a story published in April. “One of the nurses really mocked Daniel. He made a face. He was smiling. Everyone in the room was either laughing or talking nonchalantly in the background.”

Cornejo felt this was not how a medical emergency inside the detention center should be handled. She had been recording her meeting with Cortes De La Valle on her cell phone and she kept the recording going.

It is rare for the public to know what happens during a medical emergency at an immigration detention center. This audio offers a glimpse of how they could be handled.

Medical care at ICE facilities has been called into question many times in the last several years and the ICE detention center in Jena has a troubled history. The facility caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties after four detainees died between January 2016 and March 2017. The DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties investigated “suicide prevention, medical conditions and conditions of confinement.”

On the day Cortes De La Valle’s seizure was recorded, Cornejo and a group of law students from Cornell joined a coalition of immigration attorneys and advocates on one of its routine visits to detention centers in Louisiana to provide legal rights presentations and one-on-one consultations.

When Cornejo and a law student met with Cortes De La Valle, the detained man had recently filed a complaint to DHS — via several human rights organizations — alleging medical neglect and injustice. The complaint detailed two incidents at nearby hospitals that left Cortes De La Valle in fear of being admitted again.

According to the complaint, after a series of seizures in February, he was admitted to Rapides Regional Hospital, where he was allegedly chained to a hospital bed for 5 days and denied access to the bathroom. As a result, he urinated and defecated on himself and, in what both he and the complaint describe as sexual assault, Cortes De La Valle alleges that a medical aid cleaned his genitals and anus without his consent.

Another series of seizures led to another hospital visit, this time at LaSalle General Hospital in Jena, according to the complaint. There, he alleges that he underwent a painful, and possibly unnecessary, procedure when medical staff drilled into a bone in his leg to create an IV line to administer fluids or medications. According to the complaint, the procedure was done without his consent and without anesthesia or pain medication.

Neither hospital responded to repeated requests for comment on Cortes De La Valle’s allegations.

Details of the recording

Cornejo said Cortes De La Valle was telling her and the law student about the hospital visit to LaSalle General Hospital when he began to seize. The audio she shared begins with Cornejo noticing something was wrong.

“Do you need water?” Cornejo can be heard asking Cortes De La Valle.

Then, there’s a loud clamor. Cortes De La Valle fell to the ground, Cornejo said in an interview. In the audio, she can be heard asking a facility staff member to call the medical team.

“He’s having a seizure,” she says.

The laughter and mocking that Cornejo said she witnessed can’t be heard on the audio she shared. What can be heard is the sound of someone attending to an unresponsive Cortes De La Valle — asking him what happened and working with someone else to lift him up and turn him on his side.

In the recording, Cornejo says, “He’s having a seizure, he needs medical care.”

When the medical team takes Cortes De La Valle out of the meeting room, Cornejo asks to accompany him, but is denied access. She then asks to speak to the warden, formally titled the facility administrator.

According to Cornejo and a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney present for the visit, Mich Gonzalez, the facility administrator, was not on site. So, they asked to speak to the assistant warden.

While waiting to speak to the man identified in the recording as the assistant warden, Gonzalez and Cornejo explain that they want updated information on Cortes De La Valle’s condition, as Gonzalez is his co-council. In the recording, staff can be heard refusing to grant them access to that information, claiming that it would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which sets boundaries around sharing medical information.

Gonzalez can then be heard explaining repeatedly that Cortes De La Valle signed HIPAA release forms, providing his attorneys access to his medical records.

The man identified as the assistant warden is then heard telling Gonzales that he cannot disclose information about Cortes De La Valle’s condition and asks Gonzalez to lower his voice multiple times. He says the health administrator would come and speak to them, but that they have to produce the HIPAA release form.

Gonzalez counters, saying that the forms should already be in the facility’s files. The assistant warden, and later the health administrator, remains adamant that Gonzalez has to produce the forms to get an update on Cortes De La Valle’s condition.

The assistant warden tells Gonzalez and Cornejo that “the medical department are government employees,” and that he works for The GEO Group, the private prison company that operates the detention center. Gonzalez insists that despite this fact, the assistant warden should be concerned about the care that detainees receive.

The assistant warden then asks the staff to escort Cornejo and Gonzalez outside of the office. There, Gonzalez addresses one of them.

“It should concern you, it should concern the assistant warden. I wouldn’t be here bothering you in your office if our team didn’t witness him physically having a seizure and physically witness a nurse laughing at him. Do you think that’s appropriate?” Gonzalez says. “Regardless of what you might think about the human beings that are in your custody, they are human beings. And they’re not even in criminal custody. They’re here for civil proceedings. Just because these people have immigration status does not mean they’re any less human and deserving of quality medical care, even in this detention center.”

In the continued recording, the health administrator can be heard asking Gonzalez to produce the HIPAA release forms and telling him that he would be able to release information on Cortes De La Valle the following day, a Friday, or even the following Monday. Gonzalez and Cornejo are then escorted to the facility’s lobby and Jena police arrive. They inform Gonzalez and Cornejo that the facility wants them to leave the property.

Before leaving the facility, Gonzalez says the detainees at the facility deserve the same level of medical care as other people.

An update on Cortes De La Valle

Several hours passed before Cortes De La Valle was able to call Sarah Decker, his other co-council and a staff attorney at RFK Human Rights, and tell her that he was OK. His lawyers, including Gonzalez, made a request to the facility for an incident report about the seizure he suffered that day. According to Decker, they have not received a response to the request.

Decker said since the Gulf States Newsroom’s story on the complaint ran in April, Cortes De La Valle has said that ICE officers and GEO staff have taunted him, suggesting he write a new complaint or speak to the news media again. They also made mention of the photos of him and his family that were published alongside the story. He’s been in and out of isolation due to his seizures, which are still occurring every few days, according to Decker, despite being placed on new medication.

Decker said the facility does not have access to Ativan, a drug used to stop seizures, and is therefore letting Cortes De La Valle continue to convulse when he has a seizure. According to Decker, Cortes De La Valle has been able to see a neurologist, who confirmed seizure activity in his brain.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.