As Covid-19 cases spread though Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers across the U.S., immigrants locked inside are frantic that they could get sick and die. They are using innovative methods to tell the public about their fears, even as some of their jailers try to silence them, including by locking them in segregation.

That is what happened on April 21 to five women at the Irwin County Detention Center in rural Georgia. Using a video-teleconferencing app available to detainees in many ICE facilities, they called one woman’s boyfriend, who recorded them describing overcrowding, deficient sanitation, and other conditions at Irwin that made them feel terrified about contracting Covid-19. One woman began sobbing as she begged to be released. The resulting video ended up on Spanish-language television, social media, and YouTube.

In the video, the women said they knew they risked retaliation for going public. Their concerns proved well-founded. Now, according to a lawyer who represents one of them, they are crying at night, knocking on the walls to comfort one another, and screaming through the food slots to talk.

The women at Irwin had good reason to fear the spread of the virus. By press time, ICE had reported that 375 immigrants detained nationwide were infected with Covid-19, as well as 35 ICE employees working at detention facilities.

Detainees are using the jailhouse equivalent of FaceTime or Zoom to speak to the outside world.

ICE has released at least 700 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 or have underlying medical conditions that put them at especially high risk should they become infected. And on April 20, a federal judge in California ordered the agency to identify all vulnerable immigrants in its custody by the end of the month, including those who are 55 or older, are pregnant, have cancer, or have cardiovascular or respiratory diseases.

When the court decision came down, ICE counted about 31,000 immigrants in its detention centers. The agency will not release an updated figure until later this week, but over the last few days, The Intercept has spoken with immigrants who have medical conditions such as diabetes and cancer who remain in detention. Among the many still locked up, some are using the jailhouse equivalent of FaceTime or Zoom to speak to the outside world.

A few years ago, prison phone companies, including Global Tel-Link Corp., started marketing digital tablets to jails, prisons, and ICE detention facilities. Via the internet, applications such as GTL’s “GettingOut” provide inmates with audiovisual interaction with the outside world. The sessions cost 21 to 25 cents a minute.

Video visitation is officially meant to encourage socializing with friends and family, and it has become ubiquitous as more and more jails and prisons ban in-person visits — a trend that has intensified because of Covid-19. But lately, applications like GettingOut are also being deployed by people in detention to advocate for their rights. As their grainy images fill the screens of people who get the calls, detainees present evidence of severe crowding in ICE facilities, a lack of personal protective equipment, and their belief that their dorm-mates are sick with Covid-19 but their cases are unreported. They ask politicians and the public to help them. Groups often take turns speaking one by one, holding handmade signs.

Loved ones, immigrant advocates, and journalists are recording these GettingOut sessions. After the media publishes the videos, detainees have been punished — and not just at Irwin. At the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, for instance, women who made a video had their access to phone calls and television temporarily cut off and video visitation hours permanently reduced. They were threatened with criminal charges if they made more videos, and staff have apparently impeded my ability to use GettingOut to communicate with detainees. The reprisals violate the immigrants’ First Amendment rights to free expression, the media’s rights to communicate with sources, and the public’s right to be informed.

A Chilling Message

On April 17, three of the women at Irwin used GettingOut to speak with The Intercept about what had prompted them to make the video. They said they had learned from the news on April 10 that a detained person at Irwin had tested positive for Covid-19. One woman said her dorm supervisor told her that another detainee was also infected. ICE’s online list of Covid-19 cases now includes two detainees at Irwin, which is owned by LaSalle Corrections. LaSalle facilities hold 22 percent of all ICE detainees reportedly infected with the virus.

The women talked all weekend and decided that they needed to do something. On Sunday, April 12, they conducted their group GettingOut session with Anthony, the boyfriend of one of the detained women. She and the others held signs in Spanish and talked about trying to protect themselves against Covid-19 by making face masks out of socks. One speaker described the group’s fear that “they’ll retaliate against us for speaking out. We are afraid they’ll put us in solitary confinement.” By Tuesday, the video was being published in Spanish-language media in the U.S. Images of men protesting at Irwin, taken from GettingOut recordings, were also aired.

Women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia plea for help. For English subtitles on mobile, tap the dialog button in the bottom right of the video player. Credit: Rachel Taber

Then the visual and audio functions of GettingOut ceased to work at the facility for several days. “You can still use it for texting,” the mother of one of the detainees told The Intercept. “When you try to do a video visit, you just get a white screen.” Telephones remained available, but many relatives — including this mother — live outside of the U.S. and can’t receive calls from prison phones. “I haven’t been able for days to talk to my daughter,” she said. Tablet and GettingOut service was finally restored on the morning of April 17.

Irwin detainee Diana Cruz Casas has lived in the U.S. since she was a young child. Via telephone and then GettingOut just after service came back on, she told me that she and her dorm-mates had met with an ICE staffer a few days earlier to discuss their grievances and left feeling humiliated and terrified. Cruz Casas, who was asked to translate because the staffer did not speak Spanish, had to relay his chilling remarks to the rest of the women. “He said that ICE can’t do anything if we get sick,” Cruz Casas said. “That the hospitals are filled and there’s no place to send us. He said that ICE’s only job is to deport us, and they make their money doing that. He said we were like roaches that ICE keeps in boxes. To make money.”

Another detainee who attended the meeting told me via GettingOut that she was “broken by what he said. It is as though we are animals. And there is no one who cares whether we live or die.”

“He had on a face mask,” another detainee recalled. “We have no face masks or any other protection.”

The Intercept asked Bryan Cox, ICE’s southern region public affairs director, to respond to the fact that detainees were being punished for using GettingOut to communicate with the press. Their access, he wrote, “may be restricted or limited to prevent interference with orderly operation of the facility. Group protest activities clearly potentially fall within the scope of the standard.” Cox further wrote that “you are referencing persons who are under arrest and detained in the custody of a federal law enforcement agency.” In retrospect, his statement was ominous.

On April 21, four days after my conversation with Cruz Casas, she and four other women, including some I had spoken with on GettingOut, were removed from their dorms, most in handcuffs, and put into solitary confinement. They had no access to phones and for the first few days were held incommunicado. Their families were frantic. Ana Fuentes, an immigration attorney in Atlanta, had a standing weekly Skype meeting with one of the women, but she didn’t show up for the appointment. “I’ve never had this happen with any client,” Fuentes said. She was unable to get information about the woman’s whereabouts.

They were held incommunicado. Their families were frantic.

On April 24, Diego Sanchez, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative who represents Anthony’s girlfriend, called his client for a scheduled meeting via Skype. She appeared on the screen. Sanchez told me that his client said six guards brought her to the Skype room in handcuffs. She told Sanchez that officials had ordered the women to sign papers admitting that they had acted improperly by making the video. She refused.

Cox did not respond to questions from The Intercept about the reported retaliation against the five women.

One woman was released after a day, not only from solitary but also from ICE detention. She is with family now and has told Anthony that she does not want to speak publicly about what happened at Irwin. “She was told that if she did that, it would make things worse for the women being punished,” Anthony told The Intercept.

The other four women remain locked up. Sanchez’s client was allowed to call Anthony on Saturday. Another woman, who was able to call her aunt in the U.S., said she had not signed the “guilt” paper either. Both women said they have been told that they will stay in solitary for two weeks.

A Pattern of Punishment

Irwin is not the only ICE jail where immigrants are facing reprisals for trying to talk publicly about their conditions of confinement.

The nonprofit group Freedom for Immigrants, which monitors human and civil rights violations against immigrants in detention, posts reports of ICE facilities where organizing has occurred in response to the Covid-19 threat: everything from hunger strikes to petitions to visitation videos for the public. Last week, Freedom for Immigrants counted 29 detention facilities where these actions have taken place.

Another organization, Perilous Chronicle, told The Intercept last week that it had counted 34 ICE-related actions protesting Covid-19 conditions. The group thinks the actual number is much higher. According to Freedom for Immigrants and Perilous Chronicle, several facilities have retaliated against detained people trying to organize.

In late March, I was contacted by several women held in the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a rural detention facility about three hours from New Orleans managed by the private prison company the Geo Group. The women spoke to me by phone and GettingOut about their fears of contracting the deadly virus. To date, the Geo Group’s facilities have contributed 14 percent of reported Covid-19 cases among ICE employees and detainees. One woman said she knew English and was going to help the others write signs in that language.

As I pointed my smartphone at my computer screen, several women took turns silently displaying handwritten signs that described a sick woman in their midst who appeared to have Covid-19, the crowded conditions, and their terror of getting sick. But before they finished, they suddenly scattered. A guard could be heard yelling and demanding the signs. The video abruptly ended.

Detainees at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center called The Intercept using a “video visitation” program. Video: Debbie Nathan for The Intercept

The next day, the lead organizer called me. She said that immediately after the incident, the women’s access to telephones, tablets, and television was denied for hours. In addition, some of those who’d participated in the video were asked for their IDs and told that they would be investigated and punished.

On March 30, The Intercept ran my story about South Louisiana, accompanied by the women’s video. By then, the phones and GettingOut application had been turned back on. The lead organizer told me that South Louisiana’s warden, Indalecio Ramos, interrogated them to learn who made the video and said that if anyone made more videos for the media, they would be disciplined. They would not be able to use the tablets for at least two weeks. The facility decreased tablet usage from 15 minutes to 10 minutes per visit and limited their availability to nine hours a day on weekdays, down from 14 hours.

The warden has sent detainees at least one memo threatening criminal charges if they “incite” a “group demonstration.”

Ramos has since sent detainees at least one memo threatening criminal charges if more than one of them at a time uses a tablet or if they “incite” a “group demonstration.” The memo mandates that anyone who wants to use a tablet must first show identification, sign a logbook, and then employ cardboard partitions that hide the detainees from one another. Earlier, no ID was required and the partitions were voluntary.

Reporters, too, are experiencing reprisals. ICE’s rules about detainees speaking to the media are based on pre-technology days, when journalists had to make a written request to ICE for an in-person interview. ICE’s own standards specify that “detainees should not be pressured or coerced out of granting the interview request, nor should the facility in any way retaliate against a detainee for lawful communication with a member of the media or a member of the public.”

Now, however, ICE facilities are trying to prevent GettingOut communication between the press and detained people. On April 22, after I noticed that I was unable to use the app to reach sources in several ICE facilities, I called GettingOut’s customer service line. A representative told me that I had been blocked the day before, because of a request submitted by “staff” at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center. She said the request resulted in my being blocked from all facilities that use GettingOut. Three days later I checked again, spoke with another customer service person, and was again told that “staff” had asked for the block. But “it’s really odd,” the representative said. “There’s no notes” indicating which facility requested the block. Nevertheless, he added, “It seems that your account is suspended until 2025.”

I am not the only journalist whose ability to interview ICE detainees about Covid-19 has been disrupted. Laura Morel of Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, published a report on April 7 based on GettingOut sessions she recorded with people locked up at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center.

Two days later, Morel told The Intercept, she tried to do follow-up GettingOut sessions with two of her sources but was unable to contact them because their screens read “SUSPENDED.” She called their family members, who said the same thing was happening to them.

Reveal’s general counsel, Victoria Baranetsky, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Pine Prairie regarding what she described as “putative retaliatory actions” that would constitute “a clear violation of the detainees’ First Amendment privileges as well as Reveal’s and the public’s rights to receive information about issues of significant national concern.” Pine Prairie is currently reporting 17 detainees infected with Covid-19.

“It seems that your account is suspended until 2025.”

Reveal’s letter was sent after attorneys for The Intercept wrote to Ramos, the warden at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center. Their cease-and-desist letter warned that Ramos’s “retaliatory actions, meant to punish detainees for speaking to the media about their dangerous conditions and to stifle future communications with those in a position to report the wrongs inflicted upon the detainees, violate the First Amendment rights of both the detainees and The Intercept.”

The Intercept’s letter to the warden got a response from Charles Deacon, an attorney for the Geo Group. He at first claimed that GettingOut was accessible to detainees most of the day. But when The Intercept sent him Ramos’s memo indicating significantly reduced hours, Deacon sent another memo, which confirmed that hours had been reduced and sessions limited to 10 minutes. Deacon wrote that the limitations, and the requirement that tablets be signed out, were ordered “as a result of town hall meetings” where detainees had complained that some among them were hoarding the GettingOut tablets. One of the women who made the video disputed this claim when we later spoke by telephone. She said that Ramos “made these changes after we made the video, to punish us.”

Deacon wrote that detainees at South Louisiana have unlimited access to bar soap and body wash and need only ask for more if they run out. The woman detained at South Louisiana said this is also untrue. “We ask for more and are told to ask the people on the next shift. And then the next. Very rarely do we get what we ask for.” She said that detainees are relieved to have received three face masks apiece to last for a week. But their bar soap ration has been reduced, she said.

Deacon at first wrote that he had been assured that “Ramos did not and cannot threaten criminal prosecution.” After The Intercept sent him Ramos’s memo threatening criminal prosecution, Deacon wrote that Ramos himself couldn’t bring charges but ICE or police agencies could. Deacon denied that South Louisiana staff had asked GettingOut to block me. At press time, I remain blocked from seeing the faces — and protest signs — of ICE detainees everywhere who use the application.

The women at South Louisiana told me this weekend by phone that they want to make another video, but “now we can’t get out of sight of a guard who watches everything all the time.” At Irwin, four of the women who participated in the video remain segregated in two small cells. On Sunday, another detainee stood outside the cells and told the locked-down women to speak loudly so I could hear. “This is not fair,” they screamed. “Help us!”