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ACLU Investigates Prisoners’ Deaths at Puerto Rican Prison

An investigative report released by the Puerto Rico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in July 2010, concerning the Guerrero Correctional Institution in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, found that 53 prisoners had died during a six-year period from 2002 to 2008. According to the report, it was “particularly alarming that many of these deaths occurred during [the prisoners’] first days in jail. In the most extreme cases, the deaths occurred during the first forty-eight (48) hours following admission of the prisoner or detainee to that correctional facility.”

The study was prompted by reports in the news media commencing in 2004 that highlighted unusual prisoner deaths, and the lack of success that family members had in obtaining information as to the cause of the deaths. “Relatives of the deceased prisoners reported that they were not notified that their relative died on account of health problems, and in many cases were not notified that their relative had died at all,” the report stated.

According to jail authorities, the deaths were not due to violent causes and were unrelated to aggression from other prisoners. The study, among several findings reached following the ACLU’s investigation, revealed that prison officials were extremely uncooperative in providing information about how the deaths occurred or why. Prisoner deaths were not properly investigated by prison authorities, nor autopsies mandated by Puerto Rican law and accepted human rights standards performed.

According to Puerto Rican officials, the mortality rate at the Guerrero facility was the highest in the territory’s entire prison system, and the ACLU found that Puerto Rico had the highest incidence of unexplained deaths in the United States.

Another of the report’s findings was the apparent deliberate indifference on the part of jail administrators in dealing with prisoners’ medical issues, in possible violation of the Eighth Amendment and the Charter of Rights of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s prison system has issued no report related to any investigation to explain the inordinate number of deaths at Guerrero.

The problems apparently have been exacerbated by a lack of coordination between the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) and the Correctional Health Services Corporation (CHSC) in investigating the deaths. Neither agency has been effective in ensuring that the Institute of Forensic Sciences performs legally-mandated autopsies when prisoners die.

The ACLU found that the Puerto Rican prison system “also failed to comply with international standards requiring greater care for persons detained at incarceration facilities who have yet to be tried. The majority of the deceased inmates were detainees awaiting trial.”

Another finding in the ACLU report was that “the majority of inmates who died while detained at Guerrero Jail were persons addicted to controlled substances, admitted to the institution’s detoxification program. The certified toxicological and autopsy reports ... do not coincide, however, with the official government version that these prisoners’ deaths were due to the consumption of the drug named Xylazine ... [which] does not pose a risk of death.”

Despite the lack of official cooperation, the ACLU was able to determine that delays in providing necessary medical care to prisoners and delays in transporting them to off-site medical facilities “might have [put] prisoners at risk.” The ACLU also found that after deaths were attributed to Xylazine, a sedative, prison authorities took no steps to respond to the emergency. Again, since no results of any government investigation have been released, it is difficult to ascertain what measures, if any, authorities took to respond to the inordinate number of prisoner deaths.

The ACLU also criticized prison authorities and the Puerto Rican government for lack of transparency related to the deaths at Guerrero, and for blocking official requests for information by the ACLU and other members of the public. The report noted, “the DCR on repeated occasions refused to meet with the ACLU or to cooperate with our investigation.... The Corrections Administration failed to fulfill its duty to notify the prisoners’ family members that their relative suffered a health complication and subsequent death.... This violates international human rights standards....”

The ACLU also alleged in its investigative report that prisoners’ health issues stemmed from the fact that some “homeless persons were sent to jail for violating discriminatory, unconstitutional law enforcement codes that prohibit acts protected by the right to free speech, such as asking for money or spending the night in public spaces ... [or] because they were addicted to controlled substances....” The ACLU further criticized the Pretrial Services authority for failing to ask for bond reductions for such individuals, sparing them incarceration. “They were sent to the Guerrero Jail to supposedly ensure their appearance in Court. But their court appearance never did take place, due to their sudden deaths.”

The ACLU made various recommendations, including prompt investigation of all prisoner deaths, to identify the cause and manner of death; carrying out prompt autopsies; notifying family members and the public when a prisoner dies; creating a better system of communication and management within the prison system to improve operations; and complying with the U.N.’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The ACLU also asked that the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico comply with its duty to carry out independent investigations in response to complaints about human rights violations, and make its findings public.

The ACLU further stated that the courts should seek alternatives to pretrial detention for defendants “regardless of their social status.” Finally, the ACLU asked the U.S. Department of Justice to “investigate the circumstances around the death of any person in State custody, with the aim of identifying civil rights violations.” See: Investigation on Deaths of Prisoners at the Guerrero Correctional Institution in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico (ACLU, Puerto Rico Chapter, July 2010).

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