Metro Weekly

Autopsy reveals transgender woman in ICE custody was severely beaten prior to her death

ICE spokeswoman contests autopsy's findings, saying Roxsana Hernández was never abused while in custody

Roxsana Hernandez – Photo: Annie Rose Ramos, via Twitter.

An autopsy performed on a transgender woman from Honduras who died while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement reveals that she was likely physically abused prior to her death, according to The Daily Beast.

Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, 33, was a member of a migrant caravan comprised of Central Americans fleeing gang violence and political persecution in their home nations, which arrived at the United States’ border in May.

Upon reaching the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego, Calif., on May 9, Hernández petitioned for asylum and was taken into custody.

According to a statement released by ICE, Hernández was held in detention for five days before being transferred into ICE custody on May 13. Two days later, she was transferred from San Diego to El Paso, and then, on May 16, to the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., where she was housed in the transgender unit.

While at Cibola County Correctional Center, which is operated under contract by CoreCivic, the second-largest private prison company in the United States, Hernández began demonstrating signs of severe, untreated dehydration, including severe diarrhea and vomiting.

She was transferred to Cibola General hospital on May 17 with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV. Later that day, she was airlifted to Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, where she died on May 25 of cardiac arrest.

According to the autopsy, Hernández’s death was most likely caused by “severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection,” which made her more susceptible to health complications arising from the dehydration.

“According to observations of other detainees who were with Ms. Hernández, the diarrhea and vomiting episodes persisted over multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill,” forensic pathologist Kris Sperry wrote in the autopsy report.

Sperry’s autopsy — the second conducted since Hernández’s death — also found evidence of physical abuse, with “deep bruising” on her hands and abdomen, evidence of blunt-force trauma “indicative of blows, and/or kicks, and possible strikes with blunt object.”

The report also contained a diagram illustrating long, thin bruises along Hernández’s back and sides, and extensive hemorrhaging on her wrists that are “typical of handcuff injuries,” according to Sperry.

But Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE, told The Daily Beast in a statement that the agency disputes some of the autopsy’s findings, saying: “[A]llegations that she was abused in ICE custody are false.”

“A review of Hernández’s death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV,” Bennett said. “At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernández at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse.”

Bennett also attributed Hernández’s death to untreated HIV, which could have led to other complications.

“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care, including those who come into ICE custody with prior medical conditions or who have never before received appropriate medical care,” she added. “Any death that happens in ICE custody is a cause for concern, and the agency will continue its full review of this case according to standard protocols.”

Amanda Gilchrist, the director of public affairs for CoreCivic, told The Daily Beast in a statement that “we take the health and well-being of those entrusted to our care very seriously,” and are “committed to providing a safe environment for transgender detainees.”

At the time of her death, Hernández was the sixth detainee to pass away in ICE custody since Oct. 1, 2017.

Immigrant rights groups and LGBTQ groups subsequently called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Hernández’s death, including where she was housed in San Diego prior to being transferred to ICE custody. Some asylum seekers have reported that many detainees have been held in hieleras, or holding cells kept at freezing temperatures — conditions that may have contributed to Hernández contracting pneumonia.

Following the release of the autopsy, Transgender Law Center and the Law Office of Andrew Free filed a Notice of Wrongful Death Tort Claim in New Mexico as a first step in holding all parties responsible for Hernández’s death accountable.

According to a letter notifying the state of the wrongful death lawsuit, some of the possible claims that TLC and Free could pursue against individuals or entities responsible for Hernández’s death include “battery, assault, negligence, failure to protect, excessive force, intentional infliction of emotional distress, deliberate indifference, wrongful death, and failure to provide proper medical or mental health care.” The letter also demanded that authorities be prepared to turn over all documentation relating to Hernández’s detention, “including but not limited to written documentation, incident reports, recorded statements, video
and photographic evidence.”

“An independent autopsy report reveals that Roxsana was shackled for a long time and very tightly, enough to cause deep bruising on her wrists,” Lynly Egyes, the director of litigation at Transgender Law Center, said in a statement. “She also had deep bruising Injuries consistent with physical abuse with a baton or asp while she was handcuffed, according to an examination of the tissue by an independent expert board-certified forensic pathologist.

“In the final days of her life, she was transferred from California to Washington to New Mexico, shackled for days on end,” Egyes added. “If she was lucky, she was given a bottle of water to drink. Her cause of death was dehydration and complications related to HIV. Her death was entirely preventable.”

“Immigration prisons are teeming with human rights violations,” Free said in a statement. “From forced labor to inadequate access to medical care, they are horrific places to lock people up. We have requested records from the relevant federal agencies regarding the conditions Roxsana was kept in under the Freedom for Information Act. In the next few weeks, if they do not turn over those files, we will be filing a suit against them. We will not rest until those responsible for Roxsana’s suffering are held to account, and until the systems of oppression that gave rise to her suffering are abolished.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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