In May 1980, Félix Repilado Martínez left Cuba with tens of thousands of others in a mass migration via boat lift to what he thought would be a better life in the United States. Almost exactly 40 years later, on May 18, 2020, he died in the custody of the U.S. government at age 67, having contracted Covid-19 at the North Lake Correctional Institution, a private prison in Michigan.
Martínez was one of the hundreds of noncitizens serving federal sentences at the privately-run Taft Correctional Institution in California who were moved to the North Lake in March and April as Taft prepared to close down. The Intercept previously reported that North Lake had not been prepared for the influx, and the California transfers — none of whom were sick with the coronavirus prior to the move — were thrust into harm’s way.
Both facilities were part of a secretive web of federal prisons that are overseen by the Bureau of Prisons but operated by private contractors. Called Criminal Alien Requirement prisons, or CARs, they hold only non-U.S. citizens who could be deported at the end of their sentences. They are not ICE detention, but often have ICE annexes and personnel that take custody of people as they finish their time, and they are the only privately run BOP prisons. For North Lake, the operator is the GEO Group, a publicly traded detention firm and one of the two largest such companies in the United States. These prisons often escape scrutiny, falling as they do between the immigration and criminal justice spheres. Deaths of immigrants held in CARs don’t show up in ICE statistics, and the coronavirus crisis in these facilities has been little-noted.
Interviews with Martínez’s cellmate and others at the facility, his family members, and relevant documents show that for Martínez, the decision to move him to North Lake was part of a pattern of mismanagement and negligence that ultimately cost him his life. First his symptoms were barely treated, and then, as he lay gasping for air in his cell, fellow inmates say a nurse and guard were much too slow to call for help. As another person incarcerated at North Lake, Omar Jdaitawai, put it: “Believe me, if they take care of business, he’s still alive today.”
After arriving in Florida, Martínez bounced around to Texas and Minnesota before settling down in Washington state, first in Tacoma and then in Seattle. He met Elaine — who asked that her full name not be used for privacy reasons — at a music club in 2015, and they quickly became close. “Our relationship was not typical, because of the business he was in, which everybody knew. He didn’t want me to be a part of that,” she said.
This business was the drug business, which he had fallen into after unsuccessful efforts to enter a more mainstream field. Elaine attributes this to Martínez’s undiagnosed ADD and depression, growing up in poverty, and the chronic lack of opportunity afforded an Afro-Latino in Cuba, where his great passion had been folkloric dance. He had done time on state charges before being arrested by DEA agents for federal possession of crack cocaine in March 2018.
The arrest hit particularly hard because Martínez had a son who was seven at the time, whose mother was also incarcerated. The boy lived with his maternal grandmother, but Martínez had been caring for him a few days a week. “He felt that the worst thing about getting put in prison was that he lost that connection with his son. He didn’t care about himself, he felt remorse for that,” said Elaine. “He was swearing that this would never happen again.”
“Before I could even write the letter, he was dead.”
Once it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic was a dire threat to people in jails in prisons, and particularly older individuals, Elaine and Martínez’s adult daughter, Feliz, decided they were going to try to have him released on humanitarian grounds. His public defender, Elaine said, “wanted me to write a letter to the judge and say that with his age and his health” – Martínez had a heart condition — “he was going to die if he didn’t get out of there. Before I could even write the letter, he was dead.”
At Taft, the prison in California, Martínez had seemed in good shape and good spirits; his acquaintances there recall a gregarious man focused on turning his life around in the time he had left. “Everything was perfect with Mr. Martínez, but as soon as we got here” – to North Lake — “maybe a week and a half, two weeks, we pretty much all got sick,” said Javier Miranda, who knew him at Taft.
Like several others who exhibited Covid-19 symptoms, Martínez was taken to a separate unit where people were monitored and given temperature checks, though very little in the way of treatment. At one point, his condition worsened so rapidly that he was taken to the hospital, but after about a week and a half, according to his former cellmate Roberto Guerrero, he was brought back to general population, without having been definitively told whether he had the virus or not.
“He said they wouldn’t tell him anything, they did the test but wouldn’t say whether he had it. … They took him to the sick area, they called it quarantine, where they took everyone who got sick, but he was telling me all they gave him was Tylenol and told him to drink water,” Guerrero said.
“When he came back, a blind man would see he is still sick,” said Jdaitawai, who had also known Martínez at Taft.
In a note written to GEO staff and dated April 22, about three weeks after the move to North Lake and almost a month before his death, Martínez wrote that he was having “alergy unusual dry nose, pain … suffering with strong pain and my left and right lum I see blood and my spits. … I need to see the doctor soon is possible I need helps to brifts.”
“He called me before he passed, about a week, and said, ‘Everything hurts on my body, everything hurts and I can’t eat, I haven’t eaten in a week.’ His voice was horrid,” said Elaine. “He was sick, sick, sick. He said, ‘I’m not ready to die.’”
In the early afternoon of May 18, Martínez was using the bathroom when he began to have trouble drawing breath. Guerrero, his cellmate, noticed and called out for help. A guard arrived quickly, followed by a nurse. That’s when things started going wrong. The nurse was attempting to get Guerrero to translate her questions to Spanish as Martínez yelled raggedly that he couldn’t breathe. After a little while, the nurse and the guard attempted to carry him over to his cot, but instead they dropped him on the floor, where he started losing consciousness.
According to Guerrero, it was about 10 minutes before additional emergency medical personnel were called. He estimated that a total of about 45 minutes elapsed between the first calls for help and when Martínez was taken away to the hospital. “For me, it was an act of medical negligence, and I’ve told the authorities,” he told The Intercept. “The reaction that I witnessed was very slow, as if they didn’t know what to do.”
Two others who witnessed the incident backed up Guerrero’s account of a significant time lag between when the nurse and guard showed up and when Martínez was carried out on a stretcher, unresponsive.
After Martínez ’s death, GEO Group staff gave misleading information about what had taken place. Guerrero said he was told that Martínez had died en route to Cadillac Hospital, about a 45-minute drive from North Lake. He and others also said prison personnel subsequently claimed Martínez had died from cardiac arrest. “They came back here to clear themselves, said, ‘We did everything in our power to keep him alive, but we lost him, and he didn’t have coronavirus,’” said Jdaitawai.
Elaine said she was told something similar: “The Bureau of Prisons people said, ‘Oh, we took such good care of him.’ They said he had cardiac arrest.”
However, in response to queries from The Intercept, the Mid Michigan Medical Examiner Group — which serves as the chief medical examiner for several counties including Lake County, where North Lake is located — issued a letter clarifying that Martínez had died inside the prison infirmary as a result of “[b]ilateral pulmonary thromboemboli associated with COVID-19.”
Martínez’s death was part of a larger culture of indifference to the health of the men incarcerated at North Lake.
A spokesperson for the GEO Group referred detailed questions to the BOP, which did not respond. Donald Emerson, who was the warden of the prison at the time and informed Martínez’s family of his death, declined to comment when reached by phone. According to sources inside and outside the prison, Emerson was fired sometime in late July. His replacement, longtime former BOP official Angela P. Dunbar, has been named in various lawsuits filed by people under her supervision, including for medical neglect in a prison she oversaw. (Dunbar could not be reached for comment.)
What is clear is that Martínez’s death was not a fluke but part of a larger culture of indifference to the health of the men incarcerated at North Lake. The Intercept is aware of at least one other coronavirus-related death at the facility, and several men inside described similarly lethargic response times to all sorts of medical problems. One described having had a splitting headache for hours one evening and being ignored as he called for help; medical staff only responded when he started vomiting, at around 3 a.m. Another had an arm fracture that was not being addressed. Guerrero said he had been waiting weeks to receive surgery for a rare condition called paraphimosis, which is considered a medical emergency that can cause permanent damage to the penis if left untreated.
About two weeks ago, other Taft transfers organized a hunger strike to protest the medical treatment as well as spoiled and irregular meals, lack of privacy, and some other issues. There were apparently some minor concessions, and it’s possible that Emerson’s dismissal had something to do with the complaints. Yet many don’t expect the conditions that led to Martínez’s death and the rapid spread of disease to fundamentally change. “Because you are not American citizen, they don’t give a heck about us,” said Jdaitawai. “They just have to get the money, and that’s it. Meanwhile, whatever is going to happen to us, let it happen.”