“Drug people are the very vermin of humanity.”
— Myles Ambrose, director of the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement during the Nixon Administration.
Chong was a 24-year-old engineering student when he was caught up in the drug sweep by a DEA task force two years ago.
On the morning of April 21, 2012, Chong was detained with six other suspects and transported to the DEA field office, where agents determined that he was not involved in the ecstasy ring that was under investigation.
A self-confessed pot smoker, Chong told investigators he had gone to the University City apartment that Friday night to celebrate April 20 — an important day for marijuana users — and spent the night.
After being interviewed at the DEA field office Saturday, agents told Chong he would be released without charges and driven home soon.
But agents forgot about him and Chong spent the next four and half days inside the five-by-10-foot cell without food, water or a toilet. He said his screams for help went unanswered.
Chong was discovered near death on Wednesday afternoon. Agents called 911 and he was rushed to a hospital. Chong spent four days in the hospital for multiple conditions but has since recovered.
The OIG report is infuriating. We often call it the drug war, but we don’t even treat prisoners of war this way.
Four different federal drug agents saw or heard Daniel Chong during the five days he was handcuffed in a holding cell without food or water after a 2012 narcotics sweep, a U.S. Department of Justice report released on Tuesday found.
The agents did nothing because they assumed someone else was responsible for the detainee, and because there was no training for agents on how to track and monitor wards at the Kearny Mesa detention center, the report found.
So Chong wasn’t forgotten. He was ignored. The former would merely be callous incompetence. The latter is what happens when you’re conditioned to see drug offenders as less than human. To see Chong as a man dying in a cell would require some empathy. Drug Enforcement Agency agents aren’t trained to empathize with drug offenders. Quite the opposite. Because Chong is just a lowlife addict, it’s easy to pass him off as someone else’s responsibility. For the four DEA agents who saw Chong suffering, coming to his aid — hell, just preventing him from dying — wasn’t the moral obligation of a fellow human being, but a task to be assigned within the bureaucracy. That task hadn’t been assigned to them. So hey, it wasn’t their job.
Even when the story about what happened to Chong went public, the dehumanization continued.
In an executive summary of its report, issued Tuesday, the Office of Inspector General said it intervened in response to a tip that the local DEA office was trying to contain the matter in San Diego, counter to protocols.
The three-page summary rebukes the San Diego office for beginning to investigate the matter on its own — using at least two agents who were involved in the neglect of Chong and therefore had a direct conflict of interest.
Managers in the DEA’s San Diego field division violated policies and “showed poor judgment” by initiating such an investigation without approval, the Inspector General found.
So once word got out, the DEA still didn’t see this story as the horrible mistreatment of a fellow human being. Instead, Chong became a public relations problem that needed to go away. A good way to make that happen is to assign the same agents responsible for his neglect to investigate and determine whether he was neglected. Does anyone really think there was the slightest chance that these agents would find themselves culpable?
The DEA now claims to be “deeply troubled” by Chong’s treatment. But the agency refuses to say whether any agents were fired or disciplined. This is to protect the professional privacy of the agents involved.
When the federal government arrests you for drug crimes, they release your name to the media. Sometimes the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation will hold a press conference, publicly besmirching your reputation before you’ve had your day in court. Here, federal drug cops nearly killed a man, then tried to cover it up. But we don’t get to know their names or whether they were disciplined — out of respect for their privacy.
Even the OIG, which is supposed to be the people’s watchdog, affords Chong’s captors more dignity than the federal government ever afforded Chong.
The government did not release complete report.
“We released this summary, and expect to do so in other appropriate cases, in the interest of enhancing transparency in administrative matters, consistent with privacy considerations,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
Chong survived his ordeal, but last year we learned about Michael Saffioti, who did die in a Washington state jail cell after he was arrested for pot possession. Here too, jail officials refused to see Saffioti has a human being. He was severely allergic to dairy, and was seen on surveillance video having a contentious conversation with a guard about his breakfast. He then took a few bites of oatmeal, then began to have a reaction. He asked to see a nurse, but was sent instead to his jail. His pleas for help were ignored. The guards accused him of “faking.” He was dead about an hour after eating.
Criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield wrote of Saffioti last year:v c
This young man’s death reflects the toxic mix of dehumanization, neglect and deceit. Inmates complain constantly about nearly every aspect of life in jail. The accommodations don’t suit many, and there isn’t much reason not to complain. The product is that complaints are ignored.
After all, to the guards, these aren’t people, but inmates. That’s what inmates do, complain. Do something about the complaints and they’ll just be back complaining about something else tomorrow. Ignore them and they’ll still be back, but it’s easier to just ignore them again tomorrow.
The problem is that every once in a while, a complaint, like a life-threatening food allergy, is real. Not just real, but brutally real. To take the time to listen, to hear, to take seriously, a complaint is more than a guard can bear. Jails are all about routine, and routine applies to everyone. To expect CO’s to treat inmates like people, to take the time to distinguish between real complaints and the typical noise is to expect them to be caring, intelligent people. That’s not part of the routine.
Before Saffioti, there was Jonathan Magbie, a quadriplegic who died when he was left unattended in a D.C. jail cell. Magbie was serving a 10-day sentence for pot possession. In just the past week, we’ve seen a gravely ill cancer patient rushed to the hospital during his trial for growing the pot he used to treat his symptoms; a callous and reckless raid in which a Florida man was shot and killed in his own home over $200 in alleged pot sales to an informant; and a Chicago cop who helped his daughter-in-law grow pot to treat the symptoms of his cancer-stricken granddaughter, who then had his same daughter-in-law arrested after his granddaughter died.
It’s important to understand that these stories aren’t the product of rogue cops, jail officials or prosecutors. For 45 years now, the government has been waging an all-too-literal war on drugs. Since antiquity, great leaders have known that to win a war — to condition the population to be comfortable with all the violence and sacrifice that winning requires — you first dehumanize your enemy. Understand that, and you’ll begin to understand why the DEA had no safeguards in place to protect Daniel Chong but plenty of safeguards in place to protect the privacy of the DEA agents who almost killed him.