ICE detainees say “naive” guards are downplaying the coronavirus threat

Immigration detainees don’t believe ICE is doing enough to protect them from coronavirus.
Immigration detainees don’t believe ICE is doing enough to protect them from coronavirus.
Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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Details emerging about conditions at a Massachusetts jail—one of the 637 facilities nationwide that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, uses to detain migrants—suggest a lack of urgency among detention staff regarding the new coronavirus that could potentially endanger lives.

In a March 23 letter obtained by Quartz, 57 undocumented immigrants being held at the Bristol County Jail alerted authorities to “serious concerns” about the potential spread of coronavirus in the facility, along with “reckless behavior” by at least two guards. The letter, which is addressed to various federal and state authorities and notes that some men didn’t sign for fear of retaliation, is the second sent by the same group of detainees in less than a week.

The detainees said officers told them coronavirus is “nothing more than a flu,” and dismissed concerns that it could spread among those being held. “This naive behavior is of a grave concern [for] us,” they wrote in the letter.

Infection rates in detention facilities are much higher than those in the outside world. Two doctors working for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, recently told Congress that immigration detainees were at “imminent risk” for coronavirus and that anyone without a serious criminal record should be set free. Last year, ICE struggled to contain a mumps outbreak that spread throughout immigration detention facilities in multiple states. According to activist Samantha Magdaleno, five ICE employees recently walked out of the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center fearing for their health after a migrant being held there was sent to the hospital with symptoms resembling Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“The evidence at this point is overwhelming and uncontroverted: Conditions in ICE lockups have, and will continue to, endanger the lives of civilly detained immigrants,” Nashville immigration attorney R. Andrew Free told Quartz. “That endangerment will strain local health systems that are already facing an unprecedented crisis of capacity. And the mitigation efforts by DHS are diverting from medical providers the single most valuable tool they have to combat the spread of this pandemic while protecting their own health: proper N95 masks.”

The ICE detainees at the Massachusetts jail said two officers at the facility have shown symptoms of coronavirus, one of whom reportedly left the job on March 14 and never returned. There is a mere three feet of space between the bunk beds in the unit, they claim—half the amount of space health officials recommend for effective social distancing. The detainees’ first letter said staff informed them that a coronavirus outbreak at the jail was “inevitable.”

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A third letter, sent to authorities by detainees being housed in another part of the jail, claimed newly detained migrants are being brought in off the street without medical checkups upon arrival. Ventilation is poor, and the shower stalls are growing mold, they added. The jail is managed by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office and houses immigration detainees under a contract with ICE.

Attorney Ira Alkalay, who represents several of those detained at the jail, said an outbreak is a certainty. The crowded conditions, he explained, make it impossible for the facility to conform to regulations set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This is not a matter of if but a matter of when,” Alkalay told Quartz. He pointed out that cruise ships—which have superior sanitation and separate bathroom and sleeping facilities for the passengers—have seen both higher infection and fatality rates than the global average.

“Imagine what numbers you would be looking at in a case where there are up to 66 people eating and sleeping in one very confined space,” he said. “It could tip over the local hospitals if infected detainees are in need of services all at once.”

The men in the Bristol County lockup say 28 of the 57 people in one unit have serious medical conditions and want reassurance that the two officers they believe showed symptoms of coronavirus are in fact healthy. Among other things, they are requesting hand sanitizer at all entrances, cleaning products to sanitize the phone after each use, and access to clergy.

Jonathan Darling, a spokesman for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, disputed various details of their account. He told Quartz that no officers or inmates have yet been tested for coronavirus, but that none have shown symptoms. Staff at the jail, according to Darling, are regularly informing detainees about the coronavirus outbreak and the importance of hygiene, and “doing everything we and they can to prevent an outbreak.” Darling said he hadn’t spoken directly to the officer named in the detainees’ letter about his alleged “flu” comment but argued, “If he did, the opinion of one of our staff members has no effect on the many precautions we’ve taken to battle the coronavirus.”

To protect its officers, ICE is purchasing some 45,000 N95 respirator face masks for its Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations. In late 2019, the CDC criticized DHS for insufficient infection control measures. Three years earlier, the DHS inspector general said the department was not properly prepared for a pandemic. It’s unclear whether or not those deficiencies were addressed. DHS did not respond to a request for further details.