“Burials Are Cheaper Than Deportations”: Virus Unleashes Terror in a Troubled ICE Detention Center

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads to the Deep South, detained immigrants are becoming increasingly desperate.

The Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., on Dec. 3, 2011.
The Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., on Dec. 3, 2011. Photo: Sarah Dudik/The Gadsden Times via AP

Tensions were building inside the Alabama jail. A group of new detainees had just been dropped off at the Etowah County Detention Center in downtown Gadsden, and one of the men appeared sick. Word was spreading that he and the others had been exposed to the coronavirus. Detainees demanded that the new arrivals be quarantined. A young corrections officer resisted, telling the men that if they did not obey his order to lock down, he would summon the “troops.” For the men in the unit, the implication of the officer’s words was clear.

Karim Golding, a veteran of the unit, decided that desperate measures were in order. The 35-year-old slipped between the bars of a second-story railing. He tied one end of a rope of bedsheets to the railing. He wrapped the other in a noose around his neck. Thirty-nine-year-old Tesfa Miller soon joined him and did the same. On the opposite side of their unit, a man streamed the scene on his cellphone, capturing a moment that would have otherwise gone unseen by the outside world. “This about to become a suicide,” he said. “They both about to hang it up.”

The men did not leap from the railing. The troops never came. Golding’s plan seemed to work, at least for a moment, forcing a dialogue between detainees and jail officials that led to the peaceful resolution of a heated showdown. Nonetheless, the dramatic events that unfolded on the night of March 20 underscored a grim reality: As the coronavirus grips the nation, a rising tide of terror and a profound sense of abandonment is coursing through its immigrant detention system.

“If we die, so what? This is the attitude of the people here.”

Locked in closed-off places across the country, where social distancing is impossible and failures to provide adequate medical care are longstanding, tens of thousands of people are now expecting the worst. Golding, in an interview with The Intercept, said that what happened in Etowah last month was the culmination of years of frustration on the part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at the remote Alabama facility, frustrations that have taken on life-or-death urgency with the coronavirus ripping through the United States and increasingly spreading throughout the South. Despite last month’s dramatic protest, ICE continues to send detainees to the Alabama jail, including individuals who have come through facilities with confirmed coronavirus infections. Recently, officials at Etowah consolidated two units into one, virtually doubling the number of men sharing the space overnight.

“We’re the last people to get protected,” Golding told The Intercept. “If we die, so what? This is the attitude of the people here. This is the attitude of the attorney general. This is the attitude of the president.” ICE’s actions in recent weeks have revealed a macabre calculation that values carceral profit over human life, Golding argued. After all, he said, “Burials are cheaper than deportations.”


The video of the suicide threat went viral soon after it was streamed. Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton quickly batted it down as a hoax. The man who streamed the event was swiftly placed in an administrative lockdown, and according to sources inside the detention center, threatened with criminal charges for use of a contraband cellphone. In an email to The Intercept, Bryan D. Cox, ICE’s southern region public affairs director, said the “brief, minor protest” was “based on inaccurate information.” Cox added, “There is no one in ICE custody at the Etowah County facility with suspected Covid-19. Rumors to the contrary are false and needlessly spread fear through misinformation.”

Prisons, jails, and detention centers are widely known to be major vectors of infectious diseases. As of last week, Cook County Jail in Illinois was “the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections,” according to a New York Times analysis. On Rikers Island, the infection rate among incarcerated people has been reported to be seven times that of New York City, which is currently home to the largest number of coronavirus cases on the planet.


Screenshots from a video, live streamed to Facebook by a detainee at Etowah Detention Center, of the protest by Karim Golding and Tesfa Miller.

Screenshots: The Intercept

So far, ICE has reported 80 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among employees or detainees in two dozen facilities and one local hospital across 14 states. Unlike law enforcement agencies in the criminal justice system, ICE has sweeping discretion to release the people in its custody for civil immigration violations at any time. Last month, more than 3,000 doctors signed an open letter calling on the agency to do just that. Medical experts at the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees ICE, have issued similar calls, describing the potential danger in the detention centers as a “tinderbox.” In March, a former top DHS civil rights official told The Intercept that she expects ICE’s current posture to result in detainee deaths.

As demands for sweeping releases of incarcerated people have mounted, several legal organizations have taken aim at ICE’s facilities in the South, where the agency has a particularly poor track record when it comes to medical care.

Last week, a federal judge overseeing a case brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana ordered ICE to disclose the number of detainees it is granting and denying release to in several Southern states, including Alabama, after filings in the case revealed that ICE’s New Orleans field office was denying detainees parole at rates of up to 100 percent. ICE’s propensity for denying parole to detainees, particularly in the age of Donald Trump, is well-documented. As The Intercept reported earlier this year, the agency has been accused of going so far as to manipulate algorithmic software to ensure that everybody in its custody stays locked up.

An email to congressional staffers obtained by BuzzFeed News last week revealed that ICE was reviewing the cases of some 600 immigration detainees who it considered particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus — a sliver compared to the thousands of individuals being released from jails and prisons in the criminal justice system across the country. The agency has thus far offered no indication that it plans a wide-scale release of the more than 35,000 people currently in its custody.

In the case of Etowah, ICE’s position is that there’s no story there. “Bottom line: ICE is following the appropriate CDC protocols to include the use of PPE, screening and testing, and cohorting of persons,” Cox wrote in an email to The Intercept. “If you choose to write an article here the only version that would be factual is that the facility’s population is down, there are no cases, and it is fully complying with CDC protocols.”

“We have no confirmed cases because there’s nobody being tested.”

ICE’s editorial preferences aside, interviews with multiple detainees and audio recordings from inside Etowah suggest a more complicated reality. The men held by ICE described a facility that is fundamentally unprepared, and seemingly unwilling, to protect those in its custody. Among detainees, there is a prevailing sense that jail officials are doing the bare minimum, ticking off the necessary boxes to say they took appropriate actions should an outbreak occur.

To a person, sources inside Etowah each said the same thing about the people responsible for keeping them alive: They do not care.

In late March, days after the threatened suicide, dozens of Etowah detainees requested to be screened by a nurse for Covid-19. “These past two weeks I felt like I had it and I got past it,” Golding said. “We asked to be tested, knowing that they didn’t have tests, even though they’ve been telling us they have tests.” It was a basic screening, Golding stressed, not a test for the coronavirus. Golding said a nurse told him he was “symptomatic” and provided him with Advil and allergy medication. Several other detainees were told the same, he added — none were placed in quarantine.

The Intercept asked ICE and Sheriff Horton about the claim that multiple detainees had been told they were symptomatic. “If you have a detainee telling you the facility has suspected cases, they are spreading inaccurate rumor to you,” Cox wrote in an email. While ICE has not reported a confirmed case of Covid-19 in Etowah, detainees worry that fact might have something to do with the measures the agency is taking — or not taking — to proactively protect the people in its custody.

“We have no confirmed cases because there’s nobody being tested here,” Golding said.

Message in a Bottle

For Tesfa Miller, the man who joined Golding on the railing, the decision to threaten suicide was no hoax. “That was the last desperation move on our part — the only thing that we knew that was nonviolent that could stop them from trying to just make us lock down with these people,” he said. As a father to an 8-year-old girl, Miller said his top priority is getting home to his daughter alive. “These are the things that keep me fighting,” he told The Intercept.


Tesfa Miller with his daughter in 2014.

Photo: Courtesy of Tesfa Miller
Miller first shared his story of what happened inside Etowah with the Perilous Chronicle, an organization that tracks prison uprisings around the country. The Perilous Chronicle provided the audio of the call to The Intercept, and Miller elaborated on his experience in subsequent interviews with The Intercept. The lack of care toward detainees in Etowah was evident in the way that the jail responded in the days after last month’s protest, he argued. “They should’ve sent somebody to come and talk to us,” Miller said. “Nobody came.” If the facility is not taking the routine step of checking up on a detainee who threatened to take his own life, he asked, why should anyone believe they are taking the steps needed to contain the coronavirus?

“We’re so far removed from everything else, it’s like nobody notices,” Miller said. “Nobody even knows that we’re here, and we’re just hoping that we can make it out of this place alive.” He likened the experience to being stranded on a deserted island, hoping to be rescued.

“You know when you put the message in the bottle and you just throw it?” he asked. “That video is the message in the bottle.”

Jessica Vosburgh, executive and legal director at the Birmingham-based Adelante Alabama Worker Center, said that while she saw the threatened suicide at Etowah as an “escalation tactic and a cry for help,” it did not come as a shock. “Detained people in Etowah have been organizing on the inside and trying to raise the alarm about a broad array of concerns that affect their basic safety and well-being for a long time,” Vosburgh told The Intercept.

Etowah County has a unique role in ICE’s architecture of detention and deportation. For more than two decades, the agency has provided the local sheriff’s department with a steady stream of funds for housing hundreds of immigrant detainees at a time. “The contract between Etowah County and ICE has one of the lowest per diem rates of any of these intergovernmental service agreements around the country,” Vosburgh explained. Capitalizing on the low rates, ICE has turned Etowah into a destination for people who are in the system long-term — including people who have longstanding roots in the country and continue to fight their cases, and stateless people whose home countries are so racked with civil strife that they cannot accept deportations. In Vosburgh’s words, “It’s ICE’s warehouse for prolonged detainees.”

“Nobody even knows that we’re here, and we’re just hoping that we can make it out of this place alive.”

Tucked away in northeast Alabama, the facility in downtown Gadsden has other advantages for ICE and the jailers it works with. “People are farther away from big urban centers that tend to have more social services and pro bono legal support,” Vosburgh explained, and because the people who end up in Etowah are generally not from Alabama, they are also estranged from family members as they fight their cases. Not only that, “we’re in a judicial district and a circuit for appeals that is just much less favorable to the rights of detained people and noncitizens,” Vosburgh added, “so it’s somewhere that’s cheaper to keep people detained, it’s easier to keep them detained there, and it is well-known to have such horrific conditions that people just give up.”

Vosburgh recently detailed those conditions, and their relevance to the coronavirus, in a sworn court declaration. She described a lack of “basic cleaning supplies to maintain personal hygiene, keep their living and communal spaces clean”; the absence of an on-site doctor; multiweek wait times to see a nurse; and multiple instances over the years of jail officials ignoring or failing to respond to health concerns raised by detainees, at times with fatal consequences.

“Etowah has a long and abysmal record of medical care,” Vosburgh said. “People have died as a result of minor conditions going untreated.” To make matters worse, she added, county jail officials have at times struggled with matters of transparency and ethics. In 2018, for example, the Birmingham News revealed that Todd Entrekin, then the sheriff of Etowah County, had pocketed more than $1.5 million in government funds intended for feeding detainees in his custody. Entrekin and his wife used a portion of the funds to buy a beach house. The sheriff, who along with Alabama Republicans aggressively fought to keep the federal dollars coming in even after it became clear the facility was failing to meet virtually all of ICE’s detention standards, cited a Depression-era law in defense of his side hustle. He lost his bid for re-election in 2018, making way for Horton, the current sheriff.

“There’s a long history of corruption in that county,” Vosburgh explained. “So it’s kind of hard to take at face value anything that the sheriff or other officials at the jail are saying.”

“Michael,” an Etowah detainee who asked that his real name not be published for fear of retaliation in his immigration case, was among the detainees who met with a nurse recently. At 29-years-old, Michael has sickle cell anemia and chronic bronchitis, conditions that have inflamed his fear of contracting Covid-19. For him, breathing is a daily struggle. “To have the virus, I would definitely, definitely be in trouble,” he said.

Michael told The Intercept that his screening consisted of a temperature check and having his vitals taken. “I figured there would be more to it,” he said. Walking out, he felt as though he’d been given the run-around. “I feel like they did that just to say, ‘All right, we did something. Y’all can’t tell y’all’s lawyers we didn’t do nothing.’” Like Golding, Michael said he does not believe there is sufficient testing happening inside Etowah to confidently say that Covid-19 has not made its way into the facility. Not only that, he added, detainees experienced hostility for requesting the screenings at all.

Normally, Michael explained, medical staff call detainees in for appointments. This time around, everyone who wanted to be screened first had to have a sit-down conversation with a jail captain. “I feel like I was being interrogated,” Michael recalled. He asserted his right to be screened, he said, telling the captain, “I have my medical issues, so I’m very scared.” The questioning left him shaken.

“How’s he mad when it’s a life-or-death situation?” Michael asked. “People are dying by the thousands in the street.”

“How you want me to clean but you don’t have no supplies?”

The Etowah unit where last month’s protest occurred is known for its unity, sources on the inside told The Intercept. Many of the detainees have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives, and they pride themselves on understanding their rights. The men in the unit take it upon themselves to clean the common area and do repairs. Michael is one of the unit’s workers — “a volunteer worker,” he stressed. “They don’t pay us for nothing out here.”

As a worker, Michael has more interactions than most with the officers who guard the unit. In recent days, he said, those officers have shared their own fears of contracting the virus, and their concerns that senior jail officials are not doing enough to protect them. Last week, they began wearing masks. Detainees were recently given masks as well, and reportedly told that if they did not wear them they would be placed in 23-hour lockdown. Still, Michael said, half of the officers, “as soon as they get here, they take it off.” Keeping the unit clean was challenge before the coronavirus, Michael added. Soap deliveries, for example, are supposed to come once a week, but often it’s more like every two to three weeks. A guard distributes the delivery, which according to Michael, is usually enough for about 30 detainees. “There’s a hundred-something in this unit, and they don’t let them out at the same time,” Michael explained. “As soon as it comes it’s gone.”

“Every week we lack this, we lack that, or we’re waiting on the truck to come,” Michael said. “We have to argue with them every day. How you want me to clean but you don’t have no supplies?”

There are two televisions in the unit where Michael and the others live, and they are constantly tuned to the news. “The most important thing right now is what’s going on in the world,” he said. “It’s scary because they’re saying that this is the burial ground, basically, just being incarcerated.” Like several other detainees in his unit, Michael is from New York, and his family resides in some of the communities most hard hit by the coronavirus.

“I recently just lost an aunt and a cousin from the virus,” he said. Three more relatives are sick with Covid-19, he added. “We’ve just been praying.” Without counselors or chaplains, handling the emotional weight of the present moment inside Etowah is extraordinarily difficult. “You ask for mental support,” he said, “they don’t have nothing.”

Many of the men locked in his unit have never experienced incarceration before, he explained. They are asylum seekers or they overstayed their visa. Often, they don’t speak English and struggle to pay the fees required to phone home. “It seems like nobody cares,” Michael said. “Nobody asks them if they’re all right.”

“We have certain workers that speak different languages, so we try to help,” he explained. Still, “we can only do so much.”

The Black Hole

For Golding, Etowah’s function is plain to see. “This is the place where they send you when they want to fuck you up,” he said. “This is the black hole. The entire system is working to keep this facility open because this is their money.”

“This is politics at its finest,” Golding added. Those politics, and the money they represent, are not stopping for the coronavirus. On the contrary, he said, it’s business as usual on the inside.

Golding came to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was 9 years old. He grew up in Queens, New York. When he was 21 years old, he was arrested for selling cocaine base and two handguns to an undercover law enforcement team. He was sentenced to 20 years, which was reduced to 10 years following two successful appeals. Golding served his time in federal prison and, he said, turned his life around. He educated himself and made a commitment to nonviolent organizing behind bars. “My role is to make sure nobody gets hurt anytime there’s a situation,” he said. Golding has been in ICE custody since 2016, fighting and appealing his case. The problem, he argued, is that rehabilitation is not a factor ICE considers when assessing whether to release an individual from custody. “Not saying that everybody deserves to be deported or everybody deserves to stay,” he said. “But if you have redeemed yourself, you should be given that opportunity.”


Karim Golding, photographed before his incarceration 13 years ago.

Photo: Courtesy of Karim Golding
Absent those kinds of considerations, people with past criminal convictions in ICE custody become the least likely population to be given relief during a crisis like the current pandemic.

“ICE paying their contract is how this jail survives,” Golding said. “Otherwise, without this contract, this jail would not be up and running. So the politicians around here keep this jail open. They go to Washington, they fight for this jail, they do what they have to do for this jail.”

Lycoln Danglar, a 31-year-old legal permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. for more than half of his life, echoed Golding’s concerns. Attorney General William P. Barr recently ordered the Bureau of Prisons to expand the group of federal inmates eligible for early release in light of the coronavirus. Nothing comparable to that is happening for ICE detainees, Danglar argued.

“There’s no pressure applied to civil detainees, people who have already served their time, people who have already paid their debt to society,” he said. “My daughter is a natural-born citizen. My mother and father are citizens. My brothers are citizens, uncles are citizens — damn near all my family are citizens. And they are outstanding citizens at that, pay their taxes on time and I’ve paid my taxes since I came into this country. But yet, I’m not treated as an equal. I made one mistake. I got incarcerated one time. Convicted one time.” That one mistake should not cost him his life, Danglar said.

“I’m fighting for my life on both sides,” he said. “I’m fighting for my life dealing with this coronavirus issue, and I’m fighting for my life trying to go back home to my family.”

“His message to us was social distancing is basically only for the people in the free world.”

In the wake of last month’s confrontation, the ICE detainees in Etowah have been witness to a series of baffling changes in their day-to-day lives. Earlier this month, a doctor addressed about half a dozen men in the unit, telling them that because their unit was not at capacity, they had the space they needed to stay safe. “His message to us was social distancing is basically only for the people in the free world, and this is the safest place for us to be right now,” Golding recalled. The men in the unit knew that in the absence of access to soap, gloves, masks, and other supplies, the doctor’s advice would be insufficient. “We were following this day in and day out,” Golding explained. “We know what the CDC is saying.”

On March 23, advocates with the Shut Down Etowah campaign sent a letter to Horton demanding that his office “immediately develop, execute, and publicly release evidence-based and proactive plans for the prevention and management of Covid-19.” Horton, too, suggested that the space given to ICE detainees provided a measure of security. “We are so thankful and prayerful to keep Covid-19 from our jail,” the sheriff wrote. “As you can imagine, the jail has close proximity to all that are housed within and makes social distancing a task, therefor [sic], it is our utmost duty to see to it that we thoroughly screen all intakes as well as correctional officers.”

The jail had “no positive screenings” for inmates, detainees, or staff. “We have a quarantine area set aside, should such case arise,” Horton wrote. “Our ICE Count is extremely low, less than 130 occupying two units with plenty of space.”

Four days after Horton wrote the email, the jail shifted direction, moving an entire additional unit of ICE detainees into Golding’s unit. They just doubled the population, basically stacked us in together,” Golding said. “Now, instead of 56 people, it’s 114 people in here.” Whereas the men in the unit used to have free rein to walk around for most of the day, they are now being released in staggered groups for limited periods of time. “Everybody’s utilizing that time to be out,” Golding said. “So now you have 60 guys in a common area, and having to use the same bathrooms, having to use the same showers.”

“There is no cleaning protocol,” he said. “We use the same tables, the same showers, the same bathrooms, the same everything.” They also breathe the same air. “You cannot quarantine people in a jail with a central air system,” Golding said. “If they spray Mace in Unit 5, we can feel the Mace coming through the ventilation.”

The Intercept repeatedly asked ICE and the sheriff’s department why the ICE detainees in Etowah were consolidated. No answers were provided. “That’s simply not something we discuss due to operational security reasons,” Cox, the ICE public affairs official, said in an email.

In addition to consolidating its detainees in Etowah, ICE has continued to shuffle people through its various jails and detention centers around the country. “Buses have been coming in from Louisiana, Chattanooga, Atlanta. Planes are flying from New York to Louisiana,” Golding said. “ICE hasn’t shut their part of the business down at all.” Among the new arrivals, Golding said, were men who had either been detained or come into contact with individuals at facilities in New Jersey and Louisiana, where ICE has confirmed coronavirus infections among detainees and employees.

In audio obtained by The Intercept, three recent arrivals at Etowah described what ICE’s transport process has looked like in the midst of the pandemic.

The men were part of a group of ICE detainees who were relocated from the Howard County jail in Maryland in late March. Their journey began with a bus trip to Pennsylvania, where they boarded a plane with more than 100 other detainees, many of whom were shuttled to the airport on buses with New York license plates. The plane was packed to capacity, the men said, with no more than four seats unfilled. Roughly half the detainees had masks. Prior to boarding, the men said their medical screening consisted of having their temperatures checked and being asked if they had Covid-19 symptoms.

Confused at why they were being flown out of Maryland, each of the men independently described being told that, due to the virus, ICE’s facilities in Louisiana and Alabama were the only places that would accept them.

ICE denied that the men would have been given this information. “Whomever told you that Alabama and Louisiana are the only locations where ICE is moving detainees gave you false information,” Cox said in email. “Operations continue across the nation.” He added that “persons who irresponsibly spread misinformation do a disservice to the communities they claim to represent.”

Watching Queens, where he grew up, become the “epicenter of the epicenter” has been difficult. “That’s where I want to be.”

Dario Gutierrez, a 29-year-old from Maryland, said that when they traveled by land, the detainees could see that the outside world was largely shut down. Inside the bus, it was as if nothing had changed. They were handcuffed the entire time. “No social distancing at all,” Gutierrez said. “Some people was coughing, sneezing — nothing. No hand sanitizers. Nothing.” The men were flown to ICE’s LaSalle Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana. “You guys should’ve never left where you was at,” Gutierrez recalled an officer saying. Their arrival triggered a riot among the detainees who were already there. “There was a lot of fear among them,” said 27-year-old Mumfred Amimi. The LaSalle detainees managed to push the new arrivals out of their unit. Amimi recalled watching a wave of SWAT-style officers working for the GEO Group, the for-profit corporation that runs the facility, swarm on the protesters.

“I could see the riot team coming with shields,” Amimi said. The private security team was carrying paintball guns and an enormous smoke machine, Amimi said, as well as “big, 6-foot batons — like 50 of them.”

Unable to remain at the facility in Jena, the men were moved again, this time to Etowah. Faruk Ibrahim, a 45-year-old who has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, said he didn’t blame detainees at ICE detention centers for pushing back at the introduction of new arrivals. What Ibrahim could not understand, he said, was why he had been shipped across the country and exposed to thousands of people in the midst of a global pandemic. “When a president gives an order of social distance, I think that order should have been followed,” he said. “They should not have put my life at risk, knowing what they know about this virus. That is the part that is really mind-blowing to me, that any individual who listens to the news or watches the news would put someone’s life at risk.”

“I am a human being, a detainee or not a detainee, I don’t think I deserve to be treated that way,” he said. “I have a 3-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen. I have 21-year-old son, a U.S. citizen. And watching my life being put in this way, it was just mind-blowing to me.”

ICE’s running tally of confirmed Covid-19 infections within its jails and detention centers seems to grow by the day— it more than doubled in the course of writing this story. As the prospect of a serious outbreak, and the death that would accompany it, becomes increasingly likely, certain jurisdictions have chosen to sever their carceral ties with ICE. Recently, Florida’s Monroe County chose to end its contract with the agency after more than two decades, quietly relocating nearly 50 detainees in the dead of the night. “That will never happen in this facility,” Golding said.

Watching Queens, the community he grew up in, become the “epicenter of the epicenter” for coronavirus has been particularly difficult, Golding explained. “The funny thing, that’s where I want to be, regardless of what’s going on right now,” Golding said. “There’s old people in New York City right now that can’t get their medication. They can’t go to the store. They live by themselves. Who’s checking on them?”

“For me, it’s not about just getting out of jail — I can be home right now helping people,” Golding said. Men like him have been treated as a threat to public safety, he said, like a caste of people that owes something to society for committing a crime or lacking papers. If that’s the case, he argued, “let me redeem myself.”

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