The woman’s death in May 2018 has fueled scrutiny of ICE’s treatment of LGBTQ detainees as critics say the agency fails to provide adequate medical care for conditions such as HIV. A private autopsy also found evidence that Hernandez was physically abused, an allegation at odds with government findings.
The facility’s surveillance video is routinely wiped for storage reasons, according to a statement from the operator of the New Mexico facility, CoreCivic. But the Transgender Law Center, which filed a wrongful death claim on Hernandez’s behalf last fall, argues that ICE and its private partner on the detention center should have kept the footage in a case under investigation and likely to spawn a lawsuit.
The video’s reported loss has made advocates even more suspicious about the circumstances around Hernandez’s death, said Lynly Egyes, the Transgender Law Center’s legal director.
“If nothing went wrong, why wouldn’t they hold on to this?” Egyes told The Washington Post. “What did happen in those last hours that they chose to destroy?”
ICE spokeswoman Britney Walker said the agency “does not comment on pending litigation” but that its lack of comment “should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations” from the Transgender Law Center.
Hernandez headed to the United States with dreams of opening a beauty salon — and leaving prejudice behind, a family statement says.
“She fled Honduras because here transgender people are discriminated against,” the family said. “She left with hopes of living a better life.”
Hernandez arrived at Cibola County Correctional Center last May “gravely ill,” according to Amanda Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for CoreCivic. Gilchrist said Hernandez spent 12 hours at Cibola before a medical team decided she needed immediate transport to an outside hospital.
Four days after entering ICE’s custody, 33-year-old Hernandez went to the hospital with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and “complications associated with untreated HIV,” according to Walker. Just over a week later, she died at another medical center.
Staff initially attributed the death to cardiac arrest, Walker said. An autopsy by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator found Hernandez died of a rare disease contracted due to AIDS, following a “rapidly progressive illness.”
The Transgender Law Center contends that Hernandez died from poor medical care.
The center’s lawyers say her health worsened when she spent time in a cold holding area. Hernandez was also cleared for transport and incarceration the same day a medical screening found her unfit for it, according to a write-up from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties provided by the Transgender Law Center.
“Any person with common sense who encountered Roxsana while she was in custody could see that she was visibly ill,” Egyes said in a statement. “It does not take a medical degree to understand that a person who was experiencing extreme weight loss, a bad cough and intermittent fevers should not be put in a cage.”
Shortly into her detainment, Hernandez told a Customs and Border Protection officer that she had HIV and was not on medication, according to a review commissioned by the government and released by the Transgender Law Center. She described vomiting, suffering from diarrhea and shedding 40 pounds over the course of a month.
ICE never gave Hernandez the HIV treatment she needed, the Transgender Law Center says, even though an ICE handbook states that detainees with HIV must get a 30-day supply of prescribed medication. The government-commissioned review of Hernandez’s death says it’s unclear whether she received certain treatments for other ailments recommended by medical staff after her surrender to border authorities.
ICE Health Service Corps’s deputy medical director has said patients typically don’t start HIV therapy when they have major health issues. Hernandez wasn’t in custody long enough for the proper evaluations to take place, officials say.
A June 2018 autopsy commissioned by the Transgender Law Center would fuel suspicions about Hernandez’s death. It concluded that she “endured physical assault and abuse while in custody,” citing rib cage bruising and injuries to her back consistent with kicks or blows. Her wrists suggested wounds from handcuffs, the autopsy said.
Officials have disputed those findings. Authorities in New Mexico said the injuries were probably caused by CPR, and ICE has said no one treating Hernandez raised concerns about abuse.
Other deaths and allegations of substandard care in ICE custody make transparency in Hernandez’s case especially important, the Transgender Law Center’s lawyers say.
Another transgender woman died this June in the hospital after suffering from illness at a different privately run ICE detention center in New Mexico. An ICE official called it “yet another unfortunate example of an individual who illegally enters the United States with an untreated, unscreened medical condition.” But the death drew scrutiny from groups that earlier this year wrote a concerned letter to the government about the facility, saying some detainees waited weeks for medical care after they requested it.
ICE said in a statement that everyone in its custody has “the unrestricted opportunity to freely request health care services.”
“All sick call requests are received and triaged by appropriate medical personnel within 24 hours after a detainee submits the request,” Walker said.
As the Transgender Law Center gathers evidence for a lawsuit, it has asked the government for any records related to Hernandez’s death. If emails between ICE officials are to be believed, though, surveillance footage from the last place she was held before hospitalization is lost.
About three months after Hernandez’s death, an analyst with ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility asked an agency employee in New Mexico for a copy of the footage previously reviewed on-site by ICE officials, the emails indicate.
About a week later, the New Mexico employee said the video was “no longer available” because footage is typically deleted after about 90 days.
In a statement to The Post, CoreCivic spokeswoman Gilchrist gave an even shorter time period, though she later clarified that this could vary by facility. CoreCivic’s cameras are generally not able to retain images beyond 30 days, she said.
Gilchrist said CoreCivic did not think to preserve the video because it didn’t know the Transgender Law Center was considering a lawsuit until media reached out last November — long after the 90-day window.
The Transgender Law Center’s lawyers say those explanations don’t add up, noting that ICE was reviewing the incident and that it knew within a month of Hernandez’s death that the group was planning an independent autopsy.
ICE protocols also call for an internal review after a detainee death — and sharing with other government officials — of “all facility inspection records” where the person was last held, according to a document TLC says it received from ICE after a different death-in-custody case. TLC points to that emphasis on record-keeping as evidence that deleting the footage flouted the agency’s policies.
On Wednesday, the center filed a lawsuit against CoreCivic seeking release of the video and other records. CoreCivic says it has complied with most of the Center’s document requests and did not know until this week that the group took issue with what it provided.
But the Transgender Law Center says it believes the company may be withholding evidence.
“We want to know what [Hernandez] looked like,” Egyes said. “We want to know what happened. And that’s why I think its so important for us to see the video.”