Stark details emerge as ICE detainees panic about coronavirus

A detainee at an ICE detention center.
A detainee at an ICE detention center.
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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Fifty-one US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees being held in a Massachusetts lockup have signed a letter that says the facility has put them at increased risk for coronavirus.

The letter says two correctional officers at the Bristol County jail showed up for work exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, causing “extreme alarm and anxiety among all detainees.” The detainees further claim they are sleeping in bunk beds just three feet apart—half the distance medical experts recommend for effective social distancing.

Last week, the letter continues, the sheriff’s office posted a note in the jail’s housing area that said, “Given the close quarters and need for daily contact, our correctional facilities and jail are extremely vulnerable for residents, staff, volunteers, and visitors to become infected.” Medical personnel later told detainees it was “inevitable” that the jail’s entire population would have coronavirus within 30 days, the letter claims.

Such statements spread “faster than the virus itself among detainees that are now extremely agitated and panicking,” it says.

“Because of the crowded conditions in this facility, it’s impossible to conform to the CDC protocols at all,” attorney Ira Alkalay, who represents several detainees at that institution, told Quartz.

Reports have described the sanitary conditions at the jail as poor, and the detainees clean the units themselves. The hand soap the detainees are given, they say, is watered down.

At the same time, ICE is planning to purchase 45,000 N95 respirator face masks to protect deportation officers with the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations against coronavirus. In an attempt to incentivize production, the US Department of Health and Human Services—which says it will buy half a billion N95 masks over the next 18 months—has promised to pick up the cost for any excess face masks manufacturers might have left over once the coronavirus outbreak subsides.

In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) slammed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, for having medical infrastructure it described as “not sufficient to assure rapid and adequate infection control measures.” And in 2016, DHS inspector general raised significant questions about the department’s capacity to respond to a pandemic, detailing its findings in an audit released just weeks before voters elected Donald Trump president. Sources interviewed by Quartz said it is unclear what, if anything, was done to address those deficiencies.

Two doctors working for the DHS warned Congress last week that immigration detainees were at “imminent risk” for coronavirus infection and those without serious criminal records should be released. A day earlier, the agency told Congress that a medical staffer at an ICE detention center in New Jersey had tested positive for coronavirus.

The detainees mailed the letter to ICE, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Bristol County sheriff Thomas Hodgson, whose office operates the jail.

A spokesman for Hodgson, Jonathan Darling, said the two officers who were symptomatic for coronavirus had been cleared by a doctor to return to work but did not say whether they had received tests for Covid-19. Darling also disputed the detainees’ account of being told that an outbreak at the jail was inevitable, calling the claim a “complete lie” in an email to CommonWealth magazine.

“Our medical and security staff have been speaking to all inmates and detainees about the Covid situation and the dangers and risks of infection,” Darling wrote. “Never did anyone tell any inmate or detainee that an outbreak is going to happen. There are currently no cases or suspicion of coronavirus among any inmate, detainee or staff member.”

There’s good reason for people on the outside to care about what happens to ICE detainees on the inside, Alkalay told Quartz.

“If large numbers [of detainees] are admitted to local hospitals in a short period of time, those hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed and that will impact the surrounding communities—not to mention the guards who will get sick when the detainees get sick.”

On its website, ICE says it screens new detainees for coronavirus symptoms, and isolates those with fevers or respiratory issues. Those without symptoms but who meet epidemiological risk criteria are kept under observation for two weeks, says the agency.

Some 300,000 people worldwide have so far contracted the virus, and nearly 13,000 have died, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. China has had the most cases to date, with 81,304. Italy, with 53,578 cases, is second, followed by Spain (25,374), the US (22,177), and Germany (21,828).