In Arizona, two former correctional officers at the Eloy immigration detention center detailed serious COVID-19 risks to detained immigrants, to employees, and to employee families and communities. Among the problems cited:
- “Correctional officers told to ration masks and gloves.
- “Correctional officers given garbage bags with holes cut in them instead of protective gowns when entering isolation pods with detainees infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus.
- “Watered-down cleaners instead of alcohol-based solutions used to sanitize surfaces.
- “Correctional officers pressured to keep working even after showing signs of the virus.
- “Not being told when other workers or detainees had symptoms or had tested positive for the virus.
- “Detainees continued to be transferred during outbreaks to other detention facilities, potentially spreading the virus.
- “Correctional officers who showed signs of fever were told to sit in a tent next to a swamp cooler until their temperature came down.
- “A detainee was told to hold a frozen water bottle against his forehead until his temperature registered normal so he could be deported.”
ICE—the federal agency responsible for immigrant detention—denies everything. So does CoreCivic, the private, for-profit companies that rakes in millions from its contracts to run the Eloy detention center and others across the country.
In Florida, immigrant detainees begged for help, sending a judge handwritten letters signed by hundreds of detainees:
“On May 17, detainee James Bishop told the court that guards and ICE officials ‘lied about sanitizing beds sick people slept on’ and that ‘they also ignored deliberately the symptoms we suffer from the covid19 pandemic.’
“’We requested to be released and [guards] and ICE officers beat us,’ Bishop said.
“In a letter signed by about 100 detainees on April 16, detainees told Goodman to ‘please come see us immediately or send investigators’ because ‘we were served spoiled food, we’re starving, bathrooms are bad, violations of rights… beds are two feet apart and not six feet apart.’
“’We may die and are afraid,’ the collective handwritten statement said.”
They are still in detention.
In early July, Judge Dolly Gee ordered the release of children held in immigrant detention centers because of the danger from COVID-19. The government is fighting the order. The children and their parents are still in detention.
Most immigrants in detention have not been charged with any crimes, much less convicted. They are held pending hearings and denied release or bail as a matter of Trump administration policy.
Raúl Luna Gonzalez was one of those detainees, waiting for his asylum hearing, a survivor of colon cancer, and now living in fear of COVID-19 in a Louisiana detention center:
“Meanwhile, his physical and mental health deteriorated. He cleaned his colostomy bag in the sink, where he had trouble controlling the water temperature and frequently scalded his intestines. When he got infections, he had to buy antibiotics from the commissary because the infirmary didn’t provide them. Finally, Luna was prescribed Prozac and Vistaril, a sedative for treating anxiety and insomnia. (“LaSalle Corrections provides high quality medical services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments,” company executive Scott Sutterfield said in an email, “and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary.”)
“One infection sent him to the emergency room of a nearby hospital in December. In the waiting room, he sat with his legs shackled and his hands chained to his waist. The shackles frightened a little boy who asked his mom why Luna looked like that. She told her son the man was a criminal but that there was no reason to be afraid since he was cuffed and under guard. Luna began to cry, something he hardly ever did….
” Before his most recent hospital stay, Luna told me, he’d sat in a chair barely able to breathe or walk. How is it possible that I’m going to die in a prison after being treated like an animal? he asked himself. Without saying goodbye to my kids? Without having done anything wrong? He arrived at the hospital on a stretcher, handcuffed again. He described being left in a room for nine hours without medical attention as he used all his energy to breathe. …
“He was eligible to be released at any time. But under Trump, ICE was keeping nearly all asylum seekers locked up while they awaited hearings.”
Luna was freed after more than a year, through the herculean efforts of his sister. Now he is living with relatives, and still awaiting his hearing date on his asylum petition.
Some detainees ask to be deported, preferring to take their chances back home, where people have tried to kill them. That seems safer than waiting to be infected with COVID-19, helpless in a prison in the United States. Detainees and their lawyers told Reuters:
“Many of the 14 current and former detainees interviewed by Reuters said they did not have access to hygiene products such as hand soap and disinfectants. Six detainees said they were exposed to other detainees who had fevers, persistent coughs, or body aches, which can be symptoms of the virus.
“One current detainee said those who voiced health concerns were punished with solitary confinement, a claim echoed by lawyers and advocates working in detention centers in four different states….
“Several lawyers told Reuters they see the agency’s handling of the pandemic inside its detention centers as part of the U.S. government’s broader effort to limit immigration.
“’I’ve come to think it’s a strategy to get people to say: ‘I’m scared to death, I can’t stand it anymore, just deport me,’” said Margo Cowan, supervisor at the Pima County Public Defender’s Office in Arizona, who has practiced immigration law for more than three decades.”
Immigrant detainees and guards are not the only ones afraid of COVID-19 in detention centers. The government watchdog agency charged with monitoring conditions in the centers has pulled out its inspectors. In June, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General reported on dangerous conditions inside the centers:
“The DHS OIG inspections have found immigrant children and adults were held by US border authorities in disgusting cramped conditions, that guards at an ICE facility were putting people in solitary confinement without justification, and that, contrary to federal law, border officers sent asylum-seekers already on US soil back to Mexico.
“A report dated June 12 said CBP failed to meet detention standards, including serious overcrowding and prolonged detention, in 2019. The report was the result of 21 unannounced inspections.”
That’s the official government agency report. After that report, the Office of the Inspector General stopped visiting detention centers: too dangerous for inspectors, they said.