U.S. probes controversial death at Wyatt detention facility

Posted by admin on Mar 13th, 2009

March 13, 2009. W. Zachary Malinowski. Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — A federal criminal investigation is under way into the death of Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng, an immigrant detainee, who died at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls last summer after corrections officers and nursing staff allegedly ignored his pleas for help. In papers filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, a lawyer for the estate of Ng’s wife, Lin Li Qu, said prosecutors from the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Hampshire told him “that they were conducting a criminal investigation concerning the detention and death of Mr. Ng.”

Notice of the criminal investigation was gleaned from a letter that was filed in federal court. The letter, from lawyer John J. McConnell to Judge William E. Smith, says that the federal prosecutors consider Ng’s former cellmate “a material witness,” and they don’t want him deported to El Salvador.

“That’s fabulous news for us,” said McConnell. “The Ng family has been contacted and they are very pleased that there is a criminal investigation.”

The witness, Roger Gracias Lozano, is in an unusual position: he’s a witness for the government in a criminal investigation, while at the same time he’s a witness against the government in a wrongful-death lawsuit.

The new development is a dramatic turnaround from the government’s position last month at an emergency hearing to block his deportation.

On Feb. 26, Helene Kazanjian, a federal prosecutor from Maine representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Smith that he did not have the authority to block the deportation of Gracias Lozano. He was arrested after entering the country illegally in Vermont last summer after traveling to Canada to seek asylum.

Fidelma Fitzpatrick, a lawyer who works with McConnell and the American Civil Liberties Union, countered that shipping their key witness out of the country would give ICE, Wyatt and other defendants an unfair advantage in the civil lawsuit. She said they would not have enough time to depose him or have him available as a trial witness.

Smith agreed with Fitzpatrick, in part, and issued an order that allowed Gracias Lozano to remain in this country until at least May 12.

Gracias Lozano and Ng had been cellmates at Wyatt and they had become friends at a county jail in Vermont. McConnell has described Gracias Lozano as Ng’s “guardian angel” who cared for him when he became severely ill and was no longer able to care for himself.

Last month, McConnell filed the wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court, saying that ICE, Wyatt staff and a host of other defendants treated Ng “with arrogance and indifference,” when he repeatedly sought help.

Until the final days of his life, Ng’s liver cancer and fractured spine went undiagnosed.

Now, the government, according to McConnell, is seeking an administrative bail order to free Gracias Lozano from a detention center in York, Pa. Upon his release, McConnell said, Gracias Lozano will return to his wife and children at their home in Arizona. He will also be available to assist investigators and possibly appear before a federal grand jury considering criminal charges.

In recent months, investigators from ICE, the Rhode Island State Police and the jail’s professional standards unit completed investigations that have been highly critical of the way several corrections officers and nursing staff treated Ng.

Some of the most damning evidence was captured on a videotape in the jail’s sally port where Ng was dragged and loaded onto a bus for a one-day trip to Hartford. The officers refused to provide Ng with a wheelchair and they repeatedly told him to “shut up,” and “stop lying about being hurt,” the lawsuit alleges.

Wyatt fired a corrections captain and the director of nursing. Several other corrections officers and nurses were reprimanded.

ICE forwarded its 33-page investigative report to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Maine for prosecution on possible civil-rights violations. Since then, the federal authorities in New Hampshire have been assigned the criminal probe, while federal prosecutors in Maine are defending ICE in the wrongful-death lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for acting U.S. Attorney Michael Gunnison of New Hampshire did not return a call seeking comment.

Yesterday, McConnell filed a second document in federal court seeking the videotape of the way Ng was handled in Wyatt’s sally port as well as the jail’s floor plan and a transcript of Gracias Lozano’s statement to Warden Wayne T. Salisbury Jr.

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