In one day last week, the number of COVID-19 infections at the detention facility operated for migrants by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in Richwood, La., jumped from three to 20.
Otto Matos Hernandez, a 32-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker, wasn’t surprised.
Matos, who spent more than eight months at Richwood Correctional Center before leaving the facility March 26, says health care there was abysmal even before the virus entered the prison.
“In Richwood, the medical unit does not have major medical equipment or beds for patients,” he said in a sworn federal court deposition. “The only thing that staff in the medical unit do for you is give you pills.”
Richwood now has one of the highest numbers of infected detainees in the 29 ICE facilities that have reported coronavirus cases, according to official reports.
The threat of further infections has triggered hunger strikes and other protests by jailed migrants across the country who fear that ICE is ignoring the pandemic.
The Richwood example demonstrates how rapidly the virus can spread in confined, crowded facilities where adequate health care is already a challenge.
The spread of COVID-19 in ICE facilities was predictable, medical experts say.
“Immigration detention centers in the U.S. are tinderboxes for the transmission of highly… infectious pathogens,” according to Carlos Franco-Paredes, University of Colorado medical professor and infection disease specialist.
“Given the large population density of immigration detention centers, and the ease of transmission of this viral pathogen, the attack rate inside these centers may reach exponential proportions,” he said in a court filing for a Southern Poverty Law Center suit against ICE centers.
In his affidavit, Matos Hernandez detailed his battle to win U.S. asylum, dating back to May 2019, when he arrived at the Mexican border. He said he requested asylum in Hidalgo, Tx., and quickly passed an initial asylum hearing that determined that he had a credible fear of persecution in Venezuela.
He was sent to Richwood to wait for the next step in the asylum process.
100 Detainees Share Four Toilets
The facility was packed, Matos Hernandez said. There were 100 men in his dorm, sharing four toilets, four sinks, and five showers. He said that despite the threat of coronavirus, ICE was transferring more and more men to Richwood.
Matos Hernandez’s immigration case is still open, though he has been released from custody because of health issues.
The detention facility is operated by Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections, which operates 18 prisons, mainly in Texas and southeastern states.
LaSalle did not respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this month, a LaSalle Corrections spokesman said the company had started intense cleaning and disinfecting of inmate living areas, as well as monitoring detainees for illness.
Problems with health care are not new to Richwood. Last November, more than 20 Richwood inmates wrote to Congress complaining about the facility. Problems with health care were major concerns.
Nine Cuban asylum seekers signed a Nov. 3 letter to Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, (D-MS), who is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. They said that another Cuban immigrant, Roylan Hernandez-Diaz, who committed suicide at Richwood, had been suffering from medical problems that both ICE and Richwood ignored. “He had a condition in his colon that many times was obvious and he expressed it to ICE, but neither they nor the medical staff of this facility paid any attention,” their letter said.
Though the increase in Richwood cases was extreme, the virus has been steadily spreading in ICE facilities, which held 32,309 people as of April 6.
ICE said the first COVID-19 case in any ICE facility was reported in New Jersey’s Bergen County Jail on March 24.
As of Wednesday, the 29 ICE prisons with COVID-19 had a total of 287 detainees testing positive. ICE said.
123 ICE Employees Test Positive
ICE workers also have been hit hard. As of Wednesday, there were 123 ICE employees who had tested positives for the virus.
The ICE population is very different from most jails. In fiscal 2019, most of the ICE arrests were undocumented people who had no felony convictions, government data show.
Among 4,135 asylum seekers, such as Matos Hernandez, only seven percent had criminal records as of July 2019, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University.
TRAC reported this week that “many ICE detainees only spend brief periods in detention before they are quickly removed from the country.
For the 20,935 detainees with cases pending before the Immigration Court, periods of confinement can be much longer while they wait for their hearings, according to TRAC.
Richwood was not the only one of LaSalle Corrections’ facilities with a sudden increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, ICE data showed.
New York’s Buffalo Federal Detention facility has the dubious distinction of the most COVID-19 cases (49) in Wednesday’s ICE update on the virus. Local officials said the number of confirmed cases was high was because the prison had done extensive testing, far above the average for ICE facility.
ICE Director Matthew Albence told Congress on April 17 that his agency had tested only 400 of the immigrants it was holding at the time. That was slightly more 1 percent of more than 32,000 immigrants ICE was holding at the time.
The Otay Mesa detention facility in San Diego, ICE followed Buffalo with 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. That was more than double the number of detainees who had tested positive for the virus as of April 17.
At Otay Mesa, ICE Health Service Corps is the medical care provider for the inmates, though the facility is run by the private CoreCivic prison company.
The Health Service Corps provide direct medical care at about 20 detention centers throughout the nation and oversees the care at other ICE facilities.
It been criticized for alleged failings in its oversight role. In a December 2018 memo addressed to the then-acting deputy director of ICE, one supervisor stated that the corps was “severely dysfunctional and unfortunately preventable harm and death to detainees has occurred.”
Otay Mesa’s detainees also have demanded better health care in their facility, and recently staged brief hunger strikes.
Prairieland Detention Center, near Dallas, had the third largest population of coronavirus-positive detainees, with 33 confirmed cases on Wednesday, jumping ahead Richwood, which was fourth in the ICE COVID-19 count. LaSalle Corrections, operates both Prairieland and Richwood.
Philadelphia attorney Wayne Sachs, who has four clients in Prairieland, said ICE transferred about 25 inmates from an infected Pennsylvania county prison to Prairieland on April 11.
Commissioner Jerry Stringer, whose Johnson County included the facility, was quoted by the local Cleburne Times-Review as saying the detainees apparently brought the virus with them when the were transferred to Prairieland.
Asked about the transfer of the inmates from the infected Pennsylvania facility to Prairieland, ICE said in a statement Wednesday that the detainees were screened for COVID-19, in accordance with CDC guidelines, and did not show symptoms of the virus.
Detainee Transfers Questioned
The Pennsylvania ACLU recently has won major legal battles to against the infected county prison. Its legal director, Witold Walczak, said the ACLU was “suspicious” about the motives of ICE when it made the transfers. He said his office had previously interviewed two of the inmates about joining a new legal action against ICE, but then the two detainees suddenly were sent to Texas.
The ICE statement said the agency “would have no knowledge of the content of any discussions the ACLU or any other legal representative may have with a detainee.”
Across the country, there have been about two dozens lawsuits filed to free vulnerable inmates, and several federal judge have ruled in favor of the inmates.
Increasingly, federal judges have taken action to free inmates.
On March 27, New York District Judge Alison J. Nathan ordered the release of four high-risk immigrants saying the government had shown “deliberate indifference” to their need for health care.
She noted that two doctors who had worked for the Department of Homeland Security —which oversees ICE—publicly said the agency had a “track record … of failing to develop early detection and containment protocols for infectious diseases outbreaks.”
Four days later in Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III freed 11 chronically ill patients in three ICE facilities. He said that if he had not taken such an action, the result would have been “unconscionable and possibly barbaric.”
A week later, Jones ordered the release of another 22 detainees, saying that there was “clear evidence that the protective measures in place in the … prisons are not working.”
Mark Fazlollah, a board member of Criminal Justice Journalists, retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019, having worked for the newspaper since 1987.