A transgender woman who died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after being held in a privately operated detention center was likely physically abused there, according an autopsy report released Monday, and died after several days of severe, untreated dehydration.
Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, 33, a transgender woman from Honduras, died on May 25, nine days after being transferred to a dedicated unit for transgender women at the Cibola County Correctional Center in New Mexico, which is operated under contract by CoreCivic, the second-largest private prison company in the United States.
“There she developed severe diarrhea and vomiting over the course of several days,” wrote forensic pathologist Kris Sperry, “and finally was emergently hospitalized, then transported to Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she remained critically ill until her death.”
One day after arriving at Cibola, Ms. Hernández Rodriguez was admitted to a local hospital, and was later transferred to Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, where she died while in intensive care.
The autopsy concluded that Hernández Rodriguez’s cause of death was most likely “severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection,” which made her susceptible to the physiologic effects of untreated dehydration.
“According to observations of other detainees who were with Ms. Hernández Rodriguez, the diarrhea and vomiting episodes persisted over multiple days with no medical evaluation or treatment, until she was gravely ill,” Sperry wrote.
Sperry’s autopsy, the second conducted on Hernández Rodriguez’s body following her 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.” An accompanying diagram illustrated long, thin bruises along Hernández Rodriguez’s back and sides, as well as extensive hemorrhaging on Hernández Rodriguez’s right and left wrists, which Dr. Sperry found were “typical of handcuff injuries.”
Andrew Free, an attorney who is representing her family alongside the Transgender Law Center, told The Daily Beast that her treatment in ICE custody went far beyond neglectful.
“She journeyed thousands of miles fleeing persecution and torture at home only to be met with neglect and torture in this country’s for-profit human cages,” Free said.
An ICE spokesperson said the agency disputes the findings of the report.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot speak to the validity of the private autopsy cited by The Daily Beast; however, allegations that she was abused in ICE custody are false,” said Danielle Bennett, a spokesperson for the agency. “A review of Hernandez’s death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV. At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernandez at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse.
“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. 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.”
At the time of her death, ICE stated that she was admitted to the hospital with “symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV,” and that “comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay.”
In response to similar questions, CoreCivic director of public affair Amanda Gilchrist told The Daily Beast 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.”
CoreCivic, a publicly traded company whose motto is “Better the Public Good,” operates more than 65 prisons and detention facilities in the United States.
Even before her detention in New Mexico, Hernández Rodriguez had walked an extremely difficult path on her way to the United States. In an interview with Buzzfeed News a month before her death, Hernández Rodriguez said she decided to flee Honduras after she was gang-raped by four members of the MS-13 gang, resulting in her being infected with HIV.
“Trans people in my neighborhood are killed and chopped into pieces, then dumped inside potato bags,” Hernández Rodriguez said at the time. “I didn’t want to come to Mexico—I wanted to stay in Honduras but I couldn’t… They kill trans people in Honduras. I’m scared of that.”
LGBT people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are uniquely susceptible to violence and persecution, as well as during their travels in pursuit of asylum. The U.S. government has expressed skepticism about the veracity of these claims, as well as the number of LGBT people traveling in caravans headed for the border. In a telephone briefing with reporters last week, one senior DHS official told journalists that caravans pushed LGBT migrants “to the front of the caravan in an effort to gain sympathetic PR coverage.”
Hernández Rodriguez, known as “Roxy” to her friends, decided to travel more than 2,000 miles with 1,300 other migrants hoping to claim asylum in the United States, making a six-week journey across Mexico organized by Pueblo Sin Fronteras.
After arriving at the U.S. border and asking for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, she was taken into custody on May 9.
After being held for five days, she was transferred to the Cibola facility that houses a dedicated “pod” for transgender women, which ICE says is run by medical and detention staff trained in “best practices for the care of transgender individuals.” Less than three weeks after arriving in the U.S., she was dead.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with ICE’s statement and to clarify the timeline of Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez’s treatment.