COVID-19 began to infect the nation at rapid speed in March, reaching every corner of the country and taking the lives of more than 6,000 people by April 3. The United Nations has dubbed the coronavirus the “most challenging” crisis the globe has witnessed since World War II.
But amid this global pandemic, people held prisoner in remote immigrant prisons throughout the Deep South have become increasingly panicked as they, along with advocates fighting for their release, report that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – the agency keeping them locked up – is doing virtually nothing to keep them safe. Whistleblower medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security have even said that immigrant detention centers are inherently unable to protect people from the spread of the virus.
Since early March, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that offers pro bono representation to detained immigrants in the Southeast – has received numerous calls through its helpline, which conducts screenings of clients from detention centers near SIFI offices in Georgia and Louisiana. Callers report that ICE has not provided the most basic of necessities, including hand sanitizer or soap. They report that no literature has been provided to immigrants informing them of how to take precautions against the virus and that the only information they receive about COVID-19 is through the television.
“We just watch the news, but they haven’t spoken to us about it,” said one man detained at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. “We feel like we’re sitting ducks in here.”
For Francisco, a man being held at Irwin County who is at risk of contracting COVID-19 due to a pre-existing illness, being worried is a “mild way” of describing the feeling that invades him every day, he said.
“ICE is providing no health control – at all,” Francisco said. “We do not receive information from ICE about prevention. They’ve not even given us a list of symptoms. We are in bedrooms where it is impossible to keep the social distance recommended by health authorities. My concern has become fear. Now I’m terrified.”
Francisco’s fear is justified.
On April 1, a guard tested positive for COVID-19 at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Holding roughly 2,000 people, Stewart – labeled as the “black hole” of America’s immigration system – is one of the country’s largest detention centers.
Speculation that the virus has reached detention centers is now fact.
“Immigrants are our neighbors, our family,” said SIFI Director Laura Rivera. “It may shock people to learn that our government confines them against their will in prisons simply to await their day in court. Most of these places are privately run and chronically understaffed. They are places where immigrants cannot take the basic steps of social distancing and other public health practices to protect themselves from COVID-19. ICE simply cannot keep people safe inside of them. They need to release our neighbors now, or they will be responsible for illness – and death.”
A 72-hour wait
In Louisiana, a state that recently implemented a stay-at-home order, SPLC Outreach Paralegal Jaclyn Cole reported that a Cuban asylum seeker detained at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana, said officers wore riot gear and used chemical agents on detained individuals and shot at them with rubber bullets after they had a dispute with guards. Cole heard between 10 and 15 shots fired as she spoke on the phone with the man detained.
Immigrants also told SIFI that some detained people who report flu-like symptoms – breathing problems, fevers, shortness of breath and persistent coughs – are not being tested for the coronavirus. Some have been told by medical staff employed by the detention centers that they are “fine.”
One man who reported having blood in his feces, along with other extreme, flu-like symptoms, said ICE only provided him with ibuprofen, along with a syrup and salt concoction.
Should symptoms arise, ICE tells them they must “make a request” if they want to see a doctor. It takes roughly three days for this request to be granted, Francisco said.
“ICE has completely neglected the health problems of its detainees, leaving the responsibility fully in the hands of the detention centers, where we have to ask ICE agents for water and soap,” Francisco, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said in Spanish during an interview in March. “The average response time is 72 hours. In that time, many things can happen.”
According to Francisco, Irwin County is “totally at odds” with how to provide an appropriate diet for detained individuals and that he and others are fed only a handful of food, such as bread, potatoes and corn. He reports that he is certain that Irwin County is housing people infected with COVID-19 – people with whom he is forced to interact, due to ICE not implementing a social distancing procedure.
“[T]here are infected people in this center,” he said. “But no one asks [the guards] directly if they are infected or not. COVID-19 has no borders, and [the guards] know it.”
In fact, a kitchen worker who contacted SIFI recently claimed there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside of Irwin County, and that the detention center was under quarantine. The man was instructed to replace plastic ware with paper plates as a precaution. Given that he suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, he expressed concern of contracting the virus and experiencing respiratory complications.
For his part, Francisco is deeply concerned about the influx of new people detained daily – people who recently have been outside of detention, where they could have easily contracted the virus.
“We will be affected by the impact of the virus, and that will cause a wave of infection,” he said. “The only way to avoid it is to be outside of this place. The imminent impact of the virus will end our lives, and once it spreads among the detainees, it will be overwhelming. Even if ICE decides to stop bringing in new detainees, there’s nothing in place to prevent [all of us] to be easily infected.”
‘We only have God with us’
The Guardian reports that guards at LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, allegedly sprayed a man with what he called “toxic gas” after two other detainees warned him to skip meals because the food could carry COVID-19. Moreover, a woman detained at ICE’s South Louisiana Correctional Center in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana, believes she saw officers in hazmat suits feeding someone through a slot in a door.
At Folkston ICE Processing Center in Folkston, Georgia, a SIFI attorney observed an ICE officer walk into the facility from the parking lot and deliver a thermometer to detention center staff. After overhearing that the officer had driven to various drugstores to find a thermometer, the attorney surmised that most likely, ICE headquarters had not yet supplied the facility with sufficient thermometers to meet its needs.
Said one man detained at Folkston, “It’s very frightful in here because there are many people, we only have God with us.”
‘Sentenced to certain death’
The situation that faced Robert – a man who had been detained since October 2018 – was perhaps more grave than most. SIFI secured his release from Stewart on April 1, the same day the detention center reported its first case of COVID-19.
Robert – who the SPLC previously interviewed – said that not only is there a lack of proper resources to ensure basic preventative hygiene measures, but necessary items like soap can only be obtained by purchasing them through his commissary account.
Over the past two months, Robert said, the situation inside Stewart has been extremely tense. Two units, including one next to his own, were quarantined. He said guards would not go inside the units, and that they would simply leave food on the floor, next to the door.
When Robert grew ill, it took him six days to be seen by medical staff. He was forced to sleep less than a meter away from another person, who slept a meter away from someone else. Social distancing was impossible. Making matters worse, Robert also said that more than 60 people share three toilets in his unit. As the outbreak officially reached the detention center, fewer guards began coming to work, he said.
At Folkston, where Robert was originally detained, he worked for $2.50 a day cleaning the toilets. When he was moved to Stewart, he became unable to work due to a medical reaction he had while working in the laundry room. As someone with diabetes, high blood sugar and high cholesterol levels, Robert was already extremely vulnerable to contracting the worst of COVID-19. He had no money in his commissary account, and no way to protect himself when the detention center falls short of providing basic hygienic supplies for him.
The SPLC and its allies recently asked a federal court to issue a preliminary injunction requiring that ICE take immediate steps to protect people in its custody, particularly those who have medical conditions making them more susceptible to serious illness and death from COVID-19.
Although Robert was released, Francisco and thousands of others are left behind, trapped in rural detention centers in the Southeast. Francisco said he feels like he’s been given a death sentence.
“Being [here] in the middle of this pandemic is like being sentenced to certain death without ever having committed a crime that merits such sentencing,” Francisco said. “We are estranged from our loved ones and uncertain about our immigration cases as we face one of the most difficult moments of humanity in modern history.”
Read this story for perspective from a coordinator for the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative who regularly visits the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in Louisiana.
Photo by Reade Levinson/Reuters