Here is something Moises Carranza-Reyes wants you to know right off: He has never been charged with a crime, in this country or in his native Mexico.
Yes, he did enter the United States without an invitation in 2003. So did an estimated 300,000 other Mexicans. Carranza-Reyes knew that some people would take offense at a man sneaking across the border. But other people would be happy to hire him, he figured, and happy to take his money for rent and groceries and new clothes.
"I was trying to find a better life," he explains, speaking through a translator. "I've worked all my life. I don't care what kind of work I do. I feel humiliated if I can't work. I will do any honest work."
He never got the chance. So far the only entity to make a buck off Carranza-Reyes is the Park County Jail, which houses alien detainees under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Carranza-Reyes spent eight days at the jail shortly after entering Colorado two years ago. The experience cost him his left leg below the knee and almost cost him his life. And it's left him -- and Denver taxpayers -- with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills that he has no way to pay.
His lawyers say that Carranza-Reyes's ordeal is a particularly graphic example of the poor health care and inhumane conditions in for-profit lockups used by ICE. The Park County Jail takes in immigration detainees and overflow inmates from other counties and the state prison system, charging $45 a day per prisoner; a recent expansion has increased the jail's capacity to 260 inmates.
"This jail is a revenue-generator for the county," says Colorado Springs attorney Lloyd Kordick. "They're actively advertising for customers. They're also trying to minimize their costs, and they really didn't care about the consequences."
Two weeks ago Kordick and attorneys William Trine and Joseph Archuleta filed a federal lawsuit against Park County, Sheriff Fred Wegener and various jail employees, charging them with negligence and violating Carranza-Reyes's civil rights. They've been joined in the suit by Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a Washington-based public-interest group.
Sheriff Wegener didn't return phone calls from Westword about the case. Park County's attorney declined to comment. But Carranza-Reyes's account of his near-fatal detour to Park County suggests he paid a hideous penalty for an arrest that never led to any charges.
Although this was his first time across the border, Carranza-Reyes says his father had become a naturalized citizen years earlier, and his brother worked in Chicago without papers. Carranza-Reyes had served in the Mexican army and had worked as a police officer in Mexico City for four years, but he hoped he could do better by heading north. So when his brother and sister-in-law came home for a visit, he decided to cross back with them.
In February 2003 they slipped into Arizona from Sonora. A coyote arranged to take them to a house in Phoenix. After several days, they left in a camper truck for Chicago -- seven men in back, his brother's wife up front with the driver.
On March 1 they were somewhere in Colorado's mountains when a state trooper pulled them over, opened the back and found the seven men. They were handcuffed, placed in the back of an ICE van and taken to a fire station. The Mexicans were hungry and not dressed for late winter in the Rockies, but the immigration officials kept telling them not to worry. Don't worry, soon you will be in a nice van with a heater. Don't worry, soon they will bring hamburgers. Don't worry, you can try to get back again; next Tuesday you guys are going to be on an airplane to Mexico.
The food and the nice van never arrived. Instead, the group was turned over to Park County deputies, who took them to the jail in Fairplay. An American inmate who spoke broken Spanish served as translator, adding a few comments on his own initiative.
"He told us that we were to be treated like dogs," Carranza-Reyes recalls. "He said, 'Don't forget when you get out of here to call the Mexican consulate and tell them how they are treating us.' There were people who had been there a month. They had been told that next Tuesday they would be on a plane, and none of that was true."
Carranza-Reyes says he was handed a soiled uniform and assigned to a foul-smelling mattress on the floor between two other prisoners, in an open cellblock containing upward of fifty immigration detainees.
Many of the prisoners were sick. There were two toilets for the entire unit, both spattered with vomit and feces. People coughed up phlegm or blood into wads of toilet paper and tossed them on the floor. Then other people would step on the wads in their flip-flops, tracking the fluids across the room. The two men on either side of Carranza-Reyes were so weak they couldn't get up for meals; he had to bring them their food.
Other prisoners told Carranza-Reyes not to worry, but he was beginning to realize that "don't worry" signaled it was time to start worrying. The prisoners had no way to keep the cellblock clean. A group of them demanded cleaning supplies and clean clothes. The guards told them don't worry, something will be worked out, but it wasn't.
From time to time, a registered nurse came to the door of the cellblock. She doled out Tylenol and Pepto-Bismol and told the inmates they were suffering from altitude sickness. "She never went inside to see the sick people," Carranza-Reyes says. "She always had the same cups with the same pills."
Kordick says the jail's medical director at the time, James Bachman, worked at a clinic in Summit County and only sporadically visited the jail. Carranza-Reyes says he never saw a doctor while there. The prisoners signed a petition demanding better medical care, he adds, but a guard simply crumpled it up and tossed it to the floor.
After four days, Carranza-Reyes wasn't feeling too good himself. He asked to see the nurse. By the time he did see her, two days later, he had a fever, various aches, nausea and diarrhea. The nurse told him he had altitude sickness, but Carranza-Reyes had never felt like this in Mexico City, 7,400 feet above sea level. Soon he was vomiting, and his breathing became shallow enough that a deputy tried putting him on oxygen. Nothing helped.
On the morning of March 8 he complained of pain on his right side and collapsed on the floor. He soon began vomiting and coughing up blood. The nurse declared he had the flu, then revised her diagnosis to include a possible kidney stone. Around noon he was taken handcuffed in a deputy's Jeep to an emergency room in Frisco. He threw up blood in a plastic sack along the way. The doctors determined he was suffering from pneumonia, sepsis, abnormal blood chemistry, and who-knows-what-else from the virulent stew of streptococci and other contagions raging in the detainee ward. He was deteriorating rapidly and had to be rushed to Denver Health.
In Denver, Carranza-Reyes went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. His body had erupted in black, crusty sores. The surgical team had to remove part of his right lung and his left foot, which had turned gangrenous.
When immigration officials learned that he was in the intensive-care unit in Denver, they promptly released him from their custody, absolving their agency of any further expense in the matter. They released his brother and sister-in-law, too. His brother was soon presented with a form to sign, authorizing the hospital to remove comatose Moises from the machines keeping him alive. His brother refused to sign.
Carranza-Reyes spent six months in the hospital. An attorney for Denver Health has filed a lien against his lawsuit, seeking to recover $672,610 in medical bills from any settlement he might reach with Park County. Fitted with a prosthesis on his left leg, Carranza-Reyes now lives in Northglenn with his brother and sister-in-law. He walks with the aid of a cane, but he does not work.
"I try to walk in the morning," he says. "I clean. I fix dinner. Sometimes I am in so much pain I cannot walk. I go to church when I can. My brother is the only one who has a job. He never stopped helping me."
The operation left a hole in his leg that has never healed. Fluids ooze out of it. Sometimes it bleeds. Carranza-Reyes has trouble breathing, but he thinks it is just because he is getting fat, sitting around and not working.
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"I just think about why," he says. "Why they didn't bother to take care of me. I remember the nurse saying, No problem, it's just the altitude. She never took me seriously, and I was feeling worse day by day."
Carranza-Reyes wants to be taken seriously. It is hard not to work. It is humiliating. He would like to find work he can do.
He will do any work he can, he says, as long as it is honest.