The COVID-19 Crisis Is Exploding Inside ICE Detention Centers

Thousands of guards and detainees are testing positive in facilities where safety and social distancing are impossible.
Physicians protested May 1 outside the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, to demand that Immigration and Customs Enforcement release people from the facility.
Physicians protested May 1 outside the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, to demand that Immigration and Customs Enforcement release people from the facility.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Cases of COVID-19 are erupting inside dozens of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, where detained immigrants have little ability to protect themselves and staff are pressured to work without regard for safety, according to multiple new reports.

The conditions leave thousands of migrants fearing for their lives and have transformed ICE into a major potential spreader of new coronavirus infections around the world.

ICE is currently detaining roughly 22,500 people in nearly 70 detention centers around the country. The agency reports that approximately 3,100 people in its custody have tested positive for the virus and that two people have died, most recently a 51-year-old man from Mexico who died on Sunday.

But the number of cases the agency is reporting is almost certainly an undercount, and ICE is facing a crisis. The agency is still shuttling detainees around the country, making it hard to take a snapshot of a single facility, and as of late June, most ICE facilities lacked the ability to test large numbers of people, according to a report, from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, which eviscerated the agency’s response to the virus. Detainees report dangerous conditions. And a court ruling mandating release of kids from detention could create a new crisis of family separations if the administration keeps their parents locked up.

On Monday, four private companies that run ICE detention facilities — CoreCivic, the GEO Group, Management & Training Corp and LaSalle Corrections — revealed that 930 of their employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

Scattered reports have shown that ICE and its contractors are misreporting the true extent of some outbreaks. Emails obtained by the Arizona Republic revealed that the number of people infected at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona was one-third higher than what ICE was publicly reporting. (CoreCivic, which operates Eloy, called the discrepancy a “typographical error.”) At Farmville, a privately run detention center in Virginia, 267 people in detention have tested positive for COVID-19, the director recently told a court; as of Tuesday, ICE reports the number of positive cases is only 102. The Daily Beast was first to note the discrepancy.

As new cases of the coronavirus spread inside detention facilities, so do chilling reports of detainee abuse.

Detainees at multiple facilities report that they cannot socially distance, obtain masks, or access even basic sanitation. At most facilities, detainees sleep dozens to a single large room and there isn’t enough space to isolate. Detainees at one facility reportedly came close to mounting a hunger strike over dangerous conditions. When detainees peacefully protested at Farmville, guards responded with riot gear, “noise-distracting rounds,” and pepper spray, The Daily Beast reported based on court documents.

“Detainees threatening a hunger strike because the officers were not wearing masks.”

- A whistleblower report on conditions in a Louisiana ICE facility

One of the most alarming reports to date claims staff at a Louisiana ICE facility were under instructions to “freeze them out,” meaning, to turn the air conditioning so low that a forehead temperature check would not detect if a detainee had a fever. The goal, as described in the report, was to evade ICE’s policy of screening people for signs of infection before deporting them.

The report, based on staff and detainee whistleblowers at the Richwood Correctional Center, was compiled by the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit whistleblower advocacy group, and sent to Congress on Monday.

Richwood is bringing in detainees without following safety protocols or using protective equipment, the report claimed, and has been holding and transporting sick and healthy detainees together — including sick detainees who were being deported out of the country.

Staff complained of chronic shortages of sanitation and PPE products. “The situation is as bad if not worse for detainees,” who witnessed guards not wearing masks around COVID-positive detainees, according to a summary of the whistleblower accounts. “The situation led to detainees threatening a hunger strike because the officers were not wearing masks.”

LaSalle Corrections, the private company contracted to run the facility, has prevented sick and high-risk staff from using paid personal leave to stay away from the facility until they could provide a positive test for COVID-19, the whistleblowers said. Two Richwood employees who may have contracted the virus at work have died.

A spokesman for LaSalle called the whistleblower report “false and misleading.”

“LaSalle Corrections provides high-quality services in safe, secure and humane environments, and our company strongly refutes these anonymous allegations to the contrary,” he said. “LaSalle Corrections has been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance,” is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, and is following its own contingency plans for “screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education and infection control measures.”

Even if they are undercounts, the outbreaks that ICE is acknowledging are large enough to almost guarantee that COVID-19 will spread rampantly inside ICE facilities and to the surrounding communities where staff live.

“Jails, prisons, and detention facilities are not islands — in fact, they are more like bus terminals with people coming and going,” Dr. Scott Allen, an expert in medical care in detention settings with experience investigating ICE facilities, said in a recent warning letter to the Senate. “New arrestees and detainees arrive every day … Immigrants are transferred regularly throughout the detention system, with staff accompanying them as escorts … Officers and staff come and go, three shifts a day.”

“Jails, prisons, and detention facilities are not islands — in fact, they are more like bus terminals with people coming and going.”

- Dr. Scott Allen in a recent letter to the Senate

ICE did not respond to a request for comment. The agency claims it is staggering mealtimes, providing hand soap, limiting gatherings and “regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities. It has released several hundred people with a high health risk from COVID-19, it claims, and “comprehensive protocols are in place for the protection of staff and patients, including the appropriate use of personal protective equipment” for those who remain in its facilities. The agency says it isolates detainees who arrive with a fever or other signs of infection, and has “encouraged” but not required facilities to isolate all new detainees.

Despite the threat the pandemic poses to people trapped in detention facilities and the surrounding communities, the Trump administration has kept up immense pressure to detain and deport undocumented immigrants. The agency has deported more than 40,000 immigrants since March. To pressure countries to accept deportees, the administration offered humanitarian aid.

The governments of 11 countries have said that deportees returned from the United States with COVID-19, The New York Times and The Marshall Project reported.

To the extent that detentions are down — there are half as many people in custody today than there were on an average daily basis last year — it’s because far fewer people are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. ICE is doing little to mitigate the threat by releasing people, the OIG report found. From mid-March to May, facilities released only 1,137 people for COVID-related reasons. Only 20 percent of facilities released a single person.

ICE is currently preparing for a potential release of more immigrants ― but could split up families to do so, echoing the wildly controversial Trump administration family separation policy from 2018. A federal judge ordered the administration to release kids from detention ― about 125 children at the time of the ruling last month ― and the government has until Friday to do so.

It could release the children with their parents. Instead, it may release the kids alone, splitting up families, unless parents agree to let their children remain detained. That policy means keeping whole families at higher risk of COVID-19, activists say.

“Moms are trying to figure out how their kids are most safe,” Shay Fluharty from legal services provider Proyecto Dilley told CNN. “Is it most safe to go to a stranger? Is it most safe to continue to be in detention as the virus is getting closer and closer?”

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