Detainee’s death is blamed on cardiac arrest

Family skeptical of autopsy report

Pedro Tavarez is the 106th inmate to die in immigration custody since 2003. Pedro Tavarez is the 106th inmate to die in immigration custody since 2003.
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / December 1, 2009

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Pedro Tavarez, a 49-year-old federal immigration detainee, died of cardiac arrest Oct. 19 after being held in Suffolk County House of Correction, according to autopsy findings released yesterday by the state Medical Examiner’s office.

Tavarez died of natural causes, said Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the office.

Despite the official finding, relatives remained skeptical and wondered whether his death could have been prevented. They said the former Providence shuttle driver did not have a heart problem, and they urged federal officials to dig deeper into his case.

“To us, that’s not natural,’’ said his sister Milady, a housecleaner from Bronx, N.Y. “He was not sick. He didn’t suffer from heart problems.’’

The federal Office of Professional Responsibility, part of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detains and deports immigrants, is investigating the death. Yesterday, after going to federal court to temporarily halt the deportations of detainees who may have witnessed his care, lawyers began conducting depositions of the first of four fellow detainees. Shortly after Tavarez died, several detainees wrote his family a letter, saying officials at the jail were slow to provide care.

Tavarez is the 106th inmate across the country to die in immigration custody since 2003, according to ICE. Relatives said he suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure, but was otherwise relatively healthy and physically fit while fighting deportation to the Dominican Republic.

Suffolk County House of Correction houses about 270 detainees a day. The federal government pays the facility $90 a day per detainee. Jail officials have declined to comment on the case.

Federal immigration officials have confirmed that Tavarez was taken to three different hospitals on Oct. 16 with “possible pneumonia,’’ and was treated for heart and respiratory conditions before he died at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Laura Rótolo, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts who has researched detention centers, said other detainees in the past have complained that it takes too long to see a doctor at the Suffolk jail.

“There are still outstanding questions about whether this could have been prevented,’’ Rótolo said. “We continue to receive complaints from there.’’

Robert Sinsheimer, the lawyer for Tavarez’s only child, Judith, of Florida, said they would keep an open mind. “We feel we’re just beginning our investigation,’’ he said.

Tavarez arrived at Suffolk Sept. 21, after bouncing from jail to jail fighting deportation. He had come to the United States in the 1970s legally, but was ordered deported in 1988 after a drug conviction in New York. He defied that order, and had another drug conviction in 2007 in Rhode Island for a small amount of cocaine.

But he avoided immigration authorities until 2008, when State Police stopped him in Warwick for motor vehicle violations and discovered the deportation order. Tavarez had succeeded in reopening his case in immigration court and was hoping to stay. His family estimates they spent $20,000 fighting his case.

The immigrant-detention system has faced criticism over its inadequate access to medical care here and nationwide.

Last year federal officials removed immigrants from the privately operated Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., after discovering that a 34-year-old Chinese national was denied medical treatment shortly before he died of cancer.