Women locked in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Louisiana are terrified that they have been exposed to a person ill with the coronavirus, and they fear that they, too, will get sick. The women have been trying to communicate with the world about their plight, and they’ve been punished for trying.
Immigrants in ICE detention nationwide are intensely afraid of contracting Covid-19. More than 37,000 people are detained in facilities described by government inspectors, nongovernmental organizations, and the prisoners themselves as crowded and dirty. As two Department of Homeland Security doctors warned Congress, the facilities pose “an imminent risk to the health and safety of immigrant detainees” and to the public as well.
At least four ICE employees at detention facilities used by ICE in New Jersey, Texas, and Colorado have tested positive for Covid-19. On March 24, ICE announced the first detainee case. ICE later confirmed a second case, a 52-year-old detainee held in Newark.
The women who have been warning about the sick detainee in their midst are at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, in a rural area of the state near Lafayette. It is run by the private prison corporation GEO Group and holds more than 400 women. Five of them, all asylum-seekers from Cuba, have spoken with The Intercept by phone. One of the women, Rosa Pino Hidalgo, works in the kitchen. She said that a young Ecuadorian woman who worked in the kitchen with her fell ill with symptoms consistent with Covid-19.
“She served food and cleaned up after meals,” Pino Hidalgo said in Spanish. But recently, the woman “got sick with a sore throat, high fever, and diarrhea. She spent three days in bed. There has been a lot of flu going around here, and the medical staff gave her a flu test. It came out negative. Then a doctor and nurse went into her dorm, dressed in medical gowns, masks, gloves, and protective eyeglasses. We’ve never seen that when people have the flu. They carried the woman out on a gurney. Her body was also in protective gear and she was hooked up to oxygen.”
“They’re saying this quarantine is for the flu. We don’t believe them.”
Pino Hidalgo said that the dorm the sick woman lived in, which holds 72 women, was locked down in quarantine. “They pass the food under the door. The guards are wearing a medical gown and other protection. They’re saying this quarantine is for the flu. We don’t believe them.”
The woman was removed on the gurney about two weeks ago, according to Pino Hidalgo. Last week, she reappeared in the detention center’s medical unit. “I’ve been there, and she’s in a room with a sign on the window that says, ‘confirmed or suspected Covid-19,’” said Yadira Labrada Merino, another Cuban detainee.
This past weekend, several of the women used the detention center’s “video visitation” technology, using tablets provided by the detention center, to talk about their fears of contagion at the facility. The Intercept recorded them as they held up posters describing their situation. Their presentation was suddenly interrupted when a guard began yelling and confiscated the posters. For several hours, according to the detainees, all of the detention center’s tablets were seized, televisions were turned off, and phone calls were prohibited.
Bryan Cox, director of public affairs for ICE’s Southern Region, refused to discuss the sick woman’s health. Cox told The Intercept by email that “multiple false allegations” have been made recently about detainees being infected with Covid-19. He wrote that no ICE detainees in Louisiana have tested positive. He said ICE isolates detainees together if they have fever or respiratory symptoms, and if they have moderate to severe Covid-19 symptoms, they are sent to hospitals and may be tested there.
On March 18, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security Covid-19 report obtained by The Nation, the ICE Health Services Corps noted that it was “monitoring” two dozen detainees in 10 facilities and had nine “in isolation.”
Covid-19 case statistics from Louisiana suggest that contagion is of extraordinary concern in that state. The state is experiencing an unusually rapid spread of the illness. According to the Louisiana health department, there were 54 cases as of last week in the six counties surrounding the South Louisiana ICE facility, with almost a 4 percent death rate. To date, Louisiana has reported 3,540 cases of Covid-19 and 151 deaths.
ICE will not discuss Covid-19 with the incarcerated immigrants at that facility or with people who assist them. Rachel Taber, who works for the Southeastern Immigrant Rights Network in New Orleans said she helped a detainee, Francisca Morales Diaz, to get bond so she could be released. Taber drove to the South Louisiana Processing Center to pick her up. But Taber was told that Morales Diaz couldn’t be released because she was quarantined. Taber secured her release, and Morales Diaz told me that while detained, she lived on the opposite side of the facility from where the sick woman was housed. But two days before she was released, Morales Diaz said, the women in her area were told that they were being quarantined “so we wouldn’t get sick.”
Morales Diaz said that no information about Covid-19 was being given to the detainees when she was locked up. She said the women tried to get it from the news on the television, where they had learned about social distancing and the need for law enforcement workers to wear protective gear such as gloves. Morales Diaz said she saw a Cuban detainee yelling at a guard for not wearing a mask or gloves. The guard ignored the detainee. Often, media is denied to the women. “They refuse to clean the living areas to protest that we don’t have proper cleaning supplies,” Morales Diaz said. “The staff punishes them by turning off the TV.”
Morales Diaz has diabetes, and when Taber came to pick her up, Morales Diaz requested her medical records. But the officials refused to release them. Taber turned on her phone to make a recording and repeated her records request to the officials. She asked if there were any Covid-19 cases at South Louisiana. “I cannot affirm or deny,” the official said.
Since the Ecuadorian kitchen worker got sick, ICE has quietly released a few detainees from South Louisiana without charging them bond, according to Samantha Magdaleno. She coordinates a project in Michigan that assists women locked up in South Louisiana, including by gathering donations so that they can buy soap from the commissary. One bar costs $2 to $3, according to the women. That’s the only way to get enough soap to do regular hand-washing; what’s given out for free is inadequate. “Once a week, we’re given five bars per dorm of 72 people,” said detainee Maybis Ranzola Lamas. “It’s used up in a day.”
So far, the South Louisiana women have used videos to air their concerns and have been briefly punished. In several other ICE centers, detainees have staged hunger strikes. In three incidents in Texas and Louisiana, guards used force, including pepper spray on four women.
Meanwhile, two federal court judges in Manhattan last week ordered the release of 14 ICE detainees with health problems. One judge noted that ICE measures to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 are “patently insufficient.” Two lawsuits have been filed by coalitions of immigrant rights and civil rights advocates, demanding the release from ICE detention of at-risk immigrants in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
But at the South Louisiana Processing, detainees are still “living almost on top of each other,” said Ranzola Lamas. Another detainee, Karina Serrano Rodriguez, said the women sleep in bunk beds 3 feet apart. “The guards come in from outside and wear no masks,” Ranzola Lamas said.
Pino Hidalgo said her dorm houses three women older than 60 — putting them at high-risk of dying if they get Covid-19. One has diabetes. “I myself am a cancer survivor,” Pino Hidalgo said. “Nobody is protecting me.”
“I am having nightmares,” said Ranzola Lamas. “We feel almost forgotten.”