What we're up to
What we're up to
September 6, 2017
Office of Overseas Citizens Services
Bureau of Consular Affairs
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Division Chief:
My name is Sylvia Rowlands and I write as President of Brandon’s House, Inc. and, as the mother of Brandon Rowlands, on behalf of the entire Rowlands family. On October 25, 2016, Brandon, our 33-year-old son, brother, cousin, nephew, grandson, and uncle died in unfortunate and remediable circumstances while serving a prison sentence in Costa Rica for a drug-related conviction. As a result of his death, we created a non-profit organization called Brandon’s House, which aims to support internationally confined individuals by advocating on their behalf and, among other things, providing them with structured housing, health care, and employment. 
The reality of our loved one being incarcerated in another country was one of the most difficult challenges our family has ever faced. Brandon was isolated from support, mental health treatment, guidance, and rehabilitative services. We write this letter with three goals in mind: (1) to tell Brandon’s tragic story as an illustration of the issues faced by U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad; (2) to describe initiatives that Brandon’s House’s intends to create; and (3) to request an in-person meeting to discuss potential future collaboration.
After his arrest, Brandon admitted his crime and accepted his punishment. He began his five-year sentence in the La Marina prison in San Jose, Costa Rica in October 2012. During his incarceration, Brandon was committed to giving back to Costa Rica. He provided hundreds of hours of community service while incarcerated, including teaching English to inmates and guards and tending to a communal garden. Brandon was smart, honest, kind, giving and, like all prisoners, worthy of receiving the humane treatment and protections that have been repeatedly promulgated as international human rights standards.
Brandon was diagnosed as bi-polar at the age of 19. He was also a recovering opioid addict. While Brandon was imprisoned at La Marina, we were only able to coordinate a psychologist visit on one occasion after Brandon had been incarcerated for two years. We attempted on numerous occasions to provide him with necessary counseling and medication, to no avail. Our only other options were to provide the mental health counseling and support in five minute phone calls to the prison and one hour face-to-face visits during trips to Costa Rica.
Upon Brandon’s arrival at La Marina, we began our long standing relationship with our assigned official from the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. Our assigned official helped us to obtain lists of local English speaking attorneys, to coordinate visits with Brandon, and to provide Brandon with reading materials and vitamin supplements. However, we believe ensuring Brandon’s health and safety, or for that matter the health and safety of any other U.S. citizen imprisoned at La Marina, required more to be done than current consular assistance procedures permit. Our goal is to become part of and to expand the resources available to detainees to meet humane international standards.
After serving three years in prison, Brandon was released from La Marina in 2016 with only a prison ID and very little guidance. As a condition of his release, he was required to remain in Costa Rica and to obtain work for the remaining two years of his sentence. However, upon his release, he was not provided with any paperwork, program or structure needed to meet either requirement. He remained penniless, homeless, and hopeless, without supportive mental health treatment or a means to survive. In the absence of an organized program upon Brandon’s release on parole, we spoke and texted with Brandon multiple times daily but found it difficult to help him navigate the Costa Rican penal system while hundreds of miles away. Brandon reached out for advice, including to the Embassy, but received conflicting information. We made efforts to make connections that would assist Brandon in meeting the employment requirements demanded of him, to no avail.
On October 3, 2016, Brandon attempted suicide. As soon as we found out, on October 5, 2016, Brandon’s father flew to Costa Rica to meet with Embassy officials and begged the Embassy officials for their assistance in navigating Brandon’s early release to the United States. Although we understood that the Embassy could not get U.S. citizens out of jail, everyone agreed that it was in Brandon’s best interest to be released from Costa Rican custody and returned back home into our care. The Embassy officials were able to coordinate Brandon’s commitment into a psychiatric hospital. We left Costa Rica with the expectation that the Embassy would work to the extent feasible on obtaining Brandon’s early release, and that Embassy officials would remain in contact with us with updates.
Unbeknownst to us, about one week later, the hospital released Brandon. Our last communication with Brandon was on October 22, 2016 after he arrived in Tamarindo on the western coast of Costa Rica. The next day, when we could not reach him, we desperately contacted the Embassy via phone and e-mail. On October 24, we were informed by Embassy officials that Brandon was admitted to Nicoya Hospital, located over an hour away from Tamarindo. They did not provide us with any information as to his diagnosis or status. On October 25, we again contacted the Embassy for information and requested that Brandon be released on humanitarian grounds. The Embassy officials returned our call, apologizing that Brandon’s condition was serious and that he was in intensive care and non-responsive.
Brandon died of what we were told was a suspected suicide on October 25, two hours before my husband and I arrived in Nicoya. He died in a make-shift ICU hooked up to a ventilator in an isolated corner of the building open to a gravel backyard, surrounded by overflowing garbage cans. Bat guano filled the floors and covered the walls.
Before the completion of the sentence, it is desirable that the necessary steps be taken to ensure for the prisoner a gradual return to life in society. This aim may be achieved, depending on the case, by a pre-release regime organized in the same institution or in another appropriate institution, or by release on trial under some kind of supervision which must not be entrusted to the police but should be combined with effective social aid.
After Brandon’s death, we met with the Embassy staff and the Ministry of Justice and Peace and provided them with letters describing much of the above. Everyone agreed that Brandon’s death was indeed preventable.
Without a system in place to provide support for international prisoners and parolees, particularly those with health needs like Brandon, we are placing our vulnerable U.S. citizens at serious risk of harm. Brandon’s story exemplifies such risks, and provides guidance as to the need for protections to be in place.
We understood that the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, within the limits of the authority of the Department of State and international law, was to ensure fair and humane treatment for Brandon and to ensure that all parties, including Costa Rican officials, were compliant with Article 36 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). This requires that U.S. Embassy officials be provided access to United States citizens in the custody of, in Brandon’s case, Costa Rican officials. This access would allow U.S officials to “monitor the prisoner’s welfare, ensuring that the conditions of confinement are humane.” However, we do not believe the existing protections were sufficient to provide the necessary support for Brandon, and any other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad, as discussed in further detail below.
According to the Department of State, “[o]ne of the highest priorities of the Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad is to provide assistance to U.S. citizens incarcerated abroad.” We agree. However, it is clear that the requirements of consulates and embassies is limited with respect to ensuring the full protections, including health treatment and services, that are needed by these citizens. As a result, we created Brandon’s House to support this significant and vulnerable population.
In 2011, the Consular Notification Compliance Act was introduced to the Senate. Senator Patrick Kennedy spoke in support of the Act, aptly stating, “[w]hen a U.S. citizen finds him or herself in a foreign government’s custody, a consular officer is often the best, and sometimes only, resource that citizen has as he or she navigates a foreign legal system.”
In Costa Rica, as an example, there are presently approximately 42 U.S. citizens in custody. We now want to work with Department of State staff in Costa Rica to be proactive and ensure that those 42 citizens will obtain the protections they need. Our long-term goal is more far reaching: we believe these protections should extend to all U.S. citizens who are incarcerated around the world.
In order to meet the needs of this vulnerable population, we propose the following:
Brandon’s House wishes to establish, or coordinate the creation of, halfway houses in
each country where American citizens released on parole will be provided with shelter and support while they serve the remainder of their time. We hope to work with the U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to establish as many of these homes as possible, beginning with Costa Rica.
The United States has strict guidelines with respect to how U.S. law enforcement officials are required to treat foreign nationals incarcerated in the United States. We propose a review of the training program for U.S. embassy officials who are tasked with protecting American citizens incarcerated in foreign countries. If not already included in the current training program, Brandon’s House would work with Embassy staff and Costa Rican officials to incorporate training on the medical and mental health needs of incarcerated individuals, as well as working with local attorneys to structure a re-entry plan upon each individual’s release.
The creation of a support group for each U.S. citizen incarcerated abroad would provide a valuable resource for both the citizen and his or her contacts in the United States, creating an important network of advocates. The support group would receive updates from Embassy officials providing necessary information on expectations, limitations, and responsibilities of the incarcerated U.S. citizen, as well as responsibilities and issues related to parole.
We understand that the Embassy supported Brandon within the limits imposed by its authority. However, as discussed with Embassy officials, Brandon’s death could have been avoided. In order to learn from the circumstances that ultimately led to Brandon’s death, we believe that a prompt review and investigation is necessary for not just the loved ones of the individual, but also in order for the embassies and consulates of all nations to adjust their policies with respect to non-citizen prisoners to support persons incarcerated in foreign jurisdictions.
Brandon’s House is dedicated to ensuring the safety of U.S. citizens incarcerated around the world in line with our goals stated above. We hope to meet with you in order to discuss a potential future collaboration.
President, Brandon’s House, Inc.
cc: The Rowlands Family
Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP
99 Park Avenue, PH/26th Floor
New York, NY 10016
 By way of background, I am the Senior Vice President of Evidence Based Programs at the New York Foundling. I have worked as a clinician and executive in the justice and social welfare system in the USA since 1990. For 26 years, I have advocated for and participated in achieving major system changes in criminal justice and social welfare throughout the United States and internationally to protect the rights of the disenfranchised. In addition to these accomplishments, and of utmost importance to me, I am and will always be Brandon's mother.
 For more information, visit Brandon’s House at https://www.brandonshouse.life/.
 The Preamble of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, recognizes that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. . .”.
 We now understand that this was a violation of many international norms including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which provides for the minimum rights for incarcerated individuals around the world, regardless of citizenship:
 In an Instructional Manual for U.S. Law Enforcement Agents, the United States set forth clear guidelines as to what the international standards are related to access by consular officers to assist their nationals. These standards are reciprocal. U.S. Dep’t of State, Consular Notification and Access: Instructions for Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement and Other Officials Regarding Foreign Nationals (Aug. 2016), available at https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/travel/CNAtrainingresources/CNA_Manual_4th_Edition_August2016.pdf.
 Arrest or Detention of a U.S. Citizen Abroad, Dep’t of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/emergencies/arrest.html.
 Statement of Under Secretary Patrick F. Kennedy Regarding S. 1194, the Consular Notification
Compliance Act Committee on the Judiciary (July 27, 2011), available at https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/download/testimony-of-kennedypdf-2011-07-27.
 U.S. Dep’t of State, Consular Notification and Access: Instructions for Federal, State, and Local Law
Enforcement and Other Officials Regarding Foreign Nationals (Aug. 2016), available at https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/travel/CNAtrainingresources/CNA_Manual_4th_Edition_August2016.pdf.
Update: October 11, 2017
1) Amazing progress has been made with our Israeli friend Jeffrey*! He was contacted on Sunday, October 8, by the ministry to present for formal request for parole and deportation. This opportunity has provided us with some tremendous insights into the Costa Rican political machine. Constant pressure is required to move the needle, and still things progress slowly. We are very excited on how far we have come, and stay committed to realizing the goal of getting him home to Israel, posthaste!
2) We were recently introduced to Keith, an American missionary living in Costa Rica. Keith owns a small organic farm outside of San Jose that houses 20 men. He relocated to Costa Rica several years ago with Human Rights goals aligning with all of you reading this update. Keith provides parolees residency, a social network, work, and substance use/behavioral health treatment. Keith has been an incredible addition to the team. He will be receiving a parolee soon. We are all so grateful for his ongoing excitement and participation.
3) Following our introduction to Keith, our Israeli friend Jeffrey* assisted us in reengaging with Jeffrey#2*, a man from Nicaragua who also was formerly imprisoned with Brandon. In Costa Rica to meet one’s “Tercio” (early release) you must have a job lined up, a social network and confirmed housing. Jeffrey#2* has exceeded his required time on good behavior, and was lacking only a job, social network and housing. With Keith aligned, we have been able to move forward with the ministry to get him release and his family reconnected after 5 years!
4) This afternoon, Sylvia, Phil, Brianna and I made the voyage to D.C. We were granted audience with the Director of the Western Hemisphere at the US Embassy. We went prepared with 4 goals: 1) Supportive Housing for Parolees, 2) Policy and Practice Development and Training on Prisoner Issues by Employees in U.S. Embassies Abroad 3) Creation of a Support Group of Interested Persons To be Frequently Contacted by the Prisoners Issues Department 4) Provide Prompt Review and Investigations of the Death of a U.S. Citizen Incarcerated or on Parole Abroad. After the discussion, the Director and her staff were fully bought into and engaged in our goals.
The Family of Brandon Rowlands are so very grateful for your donations, your support and for keeping Brandon alive through this mission. Over the next few months we will finally be connecting and working with the 42 American’s in prison in Costa Rica and their families. We will introduce them to new resources thanks to you all and provide them hope that their children can survive. The Director of the Western Hemisphere also mentioned a similar need in Columbia. The American parolees there have no rights to work yet are forced to remain in the country for years without the ability to survive. There is a lot to do and we look to all of you. If you’d like to be more involved please let us know, we can use you all!
Update: February 2017
Sharing a few GREAT updates! In my last message, I shared with you all the success we have head working with an Israeli Citizen (Jeffery*) who Brandon met while in La Marina. As we have had continued dialogues with some local supports and Costa Rican diplomats, over that last few weeks we were able to explore a few new avenues. Last week, he and a Costa Rican representative of the justice system had the chance to meet for the first time. From the discussion, Jeffery was able to secure himself a stable job and is working at getting himself into a classroom where he will be teaching Hebrew! Also during that discussion, he received another piece immensely exciting information…for the sake of not putting the cart in front of the horse, I will keep you all in suspense this week!
Finally, I wanted to share one last update. My family has been invited to Washington D.C. to speak with the US department of state oversees citizen's affairs. We expect at that time to have an in depth conversation with him regarding our vision of what Brandon’s House will one-day be, and what it will one-day provide to all of those who may benefit from Brandon’s Legacy.
Again, thank you all, beyond words for you continued love and support! Knowing we have you all in our corner is comfort beyond words!
*in respect to personal privacy Jeffery* will be a generic moniker representing individuals we are working with.
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Update: January 2017
I wanted to share with everyone some positive news this afternoon! During the time that Brandon was in La Marina, he met a man *Jeffery* who was having a particularly difficult time acclimating. The Jeffery was a foreigner and was in the throngs of a serious depression following his incarceration. He was a foreigner and spoke very little Spanish at the time of his arrest. Due to some significant concern, Brandon was initially engaged by the guards at La Marina to translate for them and Jeffery. Brandon reached out to Jeffery outside of the request of the guards and provided him insight into his transition. While they housed together, Brandon worked with him to teach him Spanish and provide emotional support. During this time, he had been in contact with my parents as well who had additionally offered the man a helping hand. A few weeks ago, Jeffery contacted my father and informed him that he had been received early release on good behavior, though at the time was unable to find stable housing and a job. He was again despondent and, like Brandon, offered no opportunities due to his status and lack of identification (other than the prison issued identification.) Through multiple contacts, my family was able to secure Jeffery a number of job interviews and connect him with multiple possible housing opportunities! He has reported that he is doing well and looking forward to chasing down all the leads following the Holiday Season! First life touched by Brandon’s legacy and many, MANY more to come!!!
*in respect to personal privacy Jeffery* will be a generic moniker representing individuals we are working with.
Thank you all again, beyond words for your never ending support and love! We are eternally grateful!
Help spread the word!