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Mumbai woman dies in US after hunger strike in jail

By George Joseph
January 18, 2012 11:21 IST
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Mumbai native Lyvita Gomes, 52, died after going on a hunger strike for 15 days to protest her arrest in the US, reports George Joseph.

"My heart is broken. A beautiful woman is brought to jail on a minor offence. She declined to eat. In truth we cannot force anyone in jail to eat," Chief Wayne Hunter, the Lake County, Illinois, sheriff's head of administration, commented about the death of Mumbai native Lyvita Gomes, 52, who died after a hunger strike.

She died on January 3, after dehydration and malnutrition, at Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan. She had not been eating for 15 days.

For several days after her death, the authorities could not locate any of her relative. Now the police have located her brother and her elderly father in Mumbai, Hunter said. The family has arranged with a local funeral home to take charge of the body.

"We know very little about her. We don't know how long she was here. But her driving licence was four years old," Hunter said.

He is not sure about her immigration status either. Since she held a valid driving licence, he thinks she was staying legally, as it was difficult to get one without legal status.

The police are not sure about what she was doing, and believe that she was doing some manual work in the airport.

Gomes's last address was the Homestead Studio Suites Hotel, 675 Woodlands Parkway in Vernon Hills, according to published reports.

Her death was the end of a bizarre saga that began with a failure to answer a jury summon and ended with her succumbing to dehydration and malnutrition, Lake County coroner Artis Yancey told the Daily Herald.

Only US citizens are allowed as jury members, but the courts will send questionnaires to anyone, legal and illegal. If they do not reply to it, it could result in arrest and legal action.

It seems it happened in this case too. In October, the sheriff's deputies went to Gomes's Vernon Hills address to serve her with a civil warrant for failure to appear for jury duty. During the service of the warrant, she resisted, refusing to place her arms behind her back, reports said. It became another crime. They arrested and charged her for resisting arrest.

She was put in the Lake County jail. There it was discovered that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had placed a hold on her. It is not clear why there was a hold if she was staying legally in the country. The explanation is that, those in jail who are born outside of the US need to undergo a brief interview with the ICE to ascertain their status, according to authorities. Since she was not cooperative, the ICE might have placed a hold.

She was then turned over to immigration authorities. From there, the trail becomes somewhat murky, officials told the Herald.

'Once you're released into ICE custody, it's kind of like you're in a black hole. ICE does not report back to us what happens,' Hunter told the Herald.

'We can only assume, because she was back out on the street, that one of two things happened: either ICE decided they were not interested in her. Or the (federal) magistrate gave her a court date and told her to report back,' he said.

Whatever happened, she was again arrested because of her failure to appear in court on the resisting arrest charge.

On December 12, the sheriff's deputies arrived at the Vernon Hills address.  But she was not there. Two days later, Vernon Hills police located Gomes and arrested her for failure to appear in court. She was remanded to the county jail, where she began her hunger strike, possibly on December 15.

'When she started her hunger strike is still unclear. I believe she may have started the hunger strike immediately,' Hunter said.

Hunter told that the jail authorities tried as much as possible to make her eat. She was later moved to the infirmary, which is the medical unit. She was taking water and it was the reason that she looked medically stable for many days, Hunter said.

'There are a number of different strategies that you employ with an inmate that is declaring a hunger strike. One of the things we did with Gomes was invite her attorney to come in and talk to her to reverse her decision. Ultimately we can't force them to eat,' Hunter told the Herald.

However, once the medical unit found her in danger, she was moved to Vista Medical Center on December 29, one day before she was scheduled to attend a court hearing to determine her mental fitness to stand trial. Lake County authorities had moved the date up from January 5 after learning of the hunger strike.

'It was never communicated to me that they (hospital authorities) force fed her,' Hunter added.

An autopsy attributed Gomes's cause of death to dehydration and malnutrition. But the coroner said his office is reviewing medical records to tie up any loose ends.

The Herald quoted a nurse saying that Gomes had a beautiful English accent.

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