Student Forgotten In Holding Cell: 'Changes Have To Be Made'

May 3, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 10:43 am

Daniel Chong, a California college senior, was forgotten in a federal holding cell without food or water for five days.

Today, he told All Things Considered's Audie Cornish that the five days tested his sanity and his resolve to live.

"I didn't stay sane," Chong said. "Eventually, by the second or third night ... I went completely insane and was just trying to get a grip on reality, on what's happening to me."

Chong said at one point he thought about using his glasses to cut into his arm and kill himself.

As we reported yesterday, Chong was detained for questioning after a house he was spending the night in was raided by the Drug Enforcement Agency. As Chong tells it, the agents questioned him, then told him they would release him and give him a ride home.

But he was cuffed and put into a holding cell. That door would not open for five days. At one point, Chong said, the lights were turned off and all he could see was a strip of light underneath the door.

The DEA offered an apology.

"I extend my deepest apologies to the young man and want to express that this event is not indicative of the high standards that I hold my employees to. I have personally ordered an extensive review of our policies and procedures," acting Special Agent in Charge William R. Sherman of DEA's San Diego Field Division said in a statement.

Chong said he feels good about that apology but also notes that the DEA has not apologized in person.

Today, The Los Angeles Times reported that Chong is seeking $20 million in a lawsuit against the DEA. Audie asked him if he would drop the lawsuit if he received an in-person apology.

"I don't want this to happen again," he said. "Changes have to be made."

During the interview, Chong sounded puzzled about why this happened to him. It doesn't make sense, he said, that the agents would do this on purpose. But how could they not hear him kicking the door, screaming for help?

"My cries were suicidal," he said. "At one point I even begged them to urinate through the crack of the door just for me to drink. I was willing to drink other people's urine. I mean it was pretty low and embarrassing."

More of Audie's conversation with Chong will air on tonight's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR member station. We'll also post an as-aired version of the interview at the top of this post later tonight.

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In California, the Drug Enforcement Administration is in trouble after a young man was left in a windowless holding cell without water or food for several days. Daniel Chong, an engineering student at UC San Diego, was visiting friends and, as he admits, smoking marijuana. DEA agents raided the house looking to bust an ecstasy operation. The DEA says it found drugs and guns, and took nine suspects back to their office for questioning. Later, Daniel Chong was left in a holding cell and forgotten.


About four days later, when agents opened the cell and found Chong there, he had to be hospitalized. In a public statement, the DEA has apologized. Today, Daniel Chong spoke with us about his ordeal. He explained what happened when DEA agents first detained him.

DANIEL CHONG: After they interrogated me, they all gave me a friendly smile and we all walked together back to the holding cell area. And for that, they handcuffed to the back and they allowed me to put my shoes on, and they placed me into the holding cell. I asked them why am I still being put in the holding cell. They said, don't worry, you're going to be released. This is just policy. We're going to come get you in a minute. And they closed that cell door.

CORNISH: When did you realize that something was wrong?

CHONG: My best guess would be eight or nine hours after that door closed and I was still bound. And, by that time, I didn't hear anybody outside for that moment and I started freaking out a little bit.

CORNISH: What happened to you then? I mean, how did you survive the next couple of days?

CHONG: You know, I took several actions. The main thing was that I noticed the fire extinguishing sprinkler on the ceiling and that became my mission, just to set that off and try to get that water in the room.

CORNISH: And, at your lowest point, what kind of things did you end up doing to sort of stay sane?

CHONG: To stay sane? I didn't stay sane. Eventually, I was hallucinating by the second or third night. I even - at one point, I even begged them to urinate through the crack of the door just for me to drink. I was willing to drink other people's urine. I mean, it was pretty low and embarrassing. I got pretty shameless over there and, eventually, I went - I became suicidal.

I thought anything's better than just dehydrating to death. So I had glasses on at the time. I took my right lens out and then I bit it with my teeth in order to create shards and I did. And, at one point, I tried to carve a note for my mom.

CORNISH: At this point, I read that you're planning to sue the D.A. over this. What are you hoping to get out of that action?

CHONG: I'm hoping that they actually change a lot of things first. I don't want this to happen again and I want to make sure that I, you know, I get what I need because I'm still recovering. I'm doing much better right now, but I'm taking it day-by-day. And I don't know. Changes have to be made, anyway.

CORNISH: At the end of the day, why are you willing to talk about this publicly? I mean, this sounds like a very trying incident for you.

CHONG: Well, while I was in the hospital, it seems like some people already had some information about it, but it was - it really was a wrong image of me and I wanted to correct that immediately and make sure that, you know, they don't look at me as this drug dealer that was at the house with a bunch of stuff that was found. And I certainly am not. I wanted to make sure that, if they have a story, it would have to be the right one.

CORNISH: Well, Daniel Chong, thank you for taking the time to talk to us and tell us your story.

CHONG: Oh, no problem.

CORNISH: Daniel Chong was detained for about four days in a windowless cell after being picked up in a drug raid in San Diego. The DEA has had no comment beyond its apology, a statement describing the incident and a promise to review its detention procedures. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.