Letters From ICE Detainees Expose Desperate Prison Conditions Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

The handwritten notes represent an archive of the Covid-19 crisis in Arizona detention centers, where hundreds of immigrants and staff have tested positive.

Illustration of woman sitting on bed and write letter.

The letters are desperate.

“Please, help us obtain our freedom. … It’s so dangerous these days, we find ourselves between life and death. We don’t want to be the victims of this ruthless virus, and here, in these conditions, really it’s just a matter of time.”

“I’m going to ask to be deported. Because being locked in this place there’s no peace, not psychologically or emotionally.”

“The fact that we are migrants doesn’t give them the right to treat us like criminals. … I’ve been detained for five months in this center with my lung condition and problems with my liver. Do you think that proper nutrition for a sick person is bread and ham every day?”

“I’ve seen things and lived things that no other person should have to live through. They put me into quarantine to see if I was carrying Covid-19 and from there, they only took us out for 20 minutes to bathe and make a phone call … 14 days of quarantine.”

In June, women held at Eloy Detention Center, a private immigration prison in Arizona owned and operated by CoreCivic, began to write down what they were going through. The letter writers did so despite the threat of retaliation, because, they said, people had to know what was happening. “You can’t speak freely here,” one woman wrote.

The letters have gone out to clergy, lawyers, volunteers, and family members. At neighboring La Palma Correctional Center, advocates collected mass letters describing horrible conditions, fear of contagion, and reprisal by guards. Bob Kee has visited detainees at Eloy for years and gives out his number and address to many of the people he meets. When bimonthly community volunteer visits to the prison were suspended in early March, he got occasional phone calls from friends inside. Their accounts of the conditions alarmed him. He asked one woman he knew, “Will you write me a letter, and she said, ‘I will,’ then two weeks later I got this big manila envelope with 40-odd letters.” Kee and other advocates shared many such letters with me, on the condition that the women’s names not be used.

The mostly handwritten notes represent an archive of an ongoing crisis in immigration detention facilities in Arizona, where hundreds of immigrants and correctional staff have been infected with Covid-19. According to CoreCivic, 159 employees, or 50 percent of the total workforce at Eloy, have tested positive  to date. One correctional officer has died of the disease.

Thirty-four detainees at Eloy are currently being monitored after testing positive, according to ICE statistics; in total, 252 people held at the facility have contracted the disease. That puts Eloy among the ICE facilities with the highest number of infections. La Palma, which is also operated by CoreCivic, has had 105 reported cases. The actual number may be higher: The Arizona Republic obtained internal emails saying that as of June 22, 270 detainees at Eloy had tested positive. CoreCivic said the figure was a typo.

“I’m going to ask to be deported. Because being locked in this place there’s no peace, not psychologically or emotionally.”

The letters were mostly written in mid-June and describe a spiraling panic beginning in late May. Many of the complaints were also outlined in a lawsuit lodged in early June arguing for the release of medically at-risk detainees at Eloy and La Palma: lack of medical attention and cleaning supplies, and guards reusing protective equipment and punishing people who speak out. The problems were compounded because so many guards were infected. The facility was so short-staffed that women — even those who were not being monitored for coronavirus symptoms — spent hours locked in their cells, denied hot food and any kind of freedom of movement.

When the guards locked them in, a woman who was recently released told me, they’d say, “You have to protect yourselves.” But, she said, “we don’t go anywhere, we’re locked in a cell. You’re the ones that are in the street, you’re the ones that have to be careful with people coming into the center. Obviously you’re the ones bringing in the virus, not us.”

A spokesperson for CoreCivic, Amanda Gilchrist, responded to a detailed list of the women’s claims, saying: “These are baseless allegations, and the claims simply do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 our facility has been taking for months. We care deeply for our hard-working, dedicated employees, as well as individuals in our care, and we’re committed to their safety.” ICE declined to comment.

Conversations with several currently detained women and with volunteers and advocates who are in touch with people still at Eloy confirmed that while the lockdowns have eased and conditions have improved a bit, at least for people who aren’t quarantined, people remain fearful and desperate for release.

“It’s still scary because what if someone is still sick?” one woman told me by phone this week. “We’re getting mixed together. The other day, everyone in the unit was in the yard together.”

A Cuban asylum-seeker in Eloy was put in a section of the prison with people who had tested positive earlier this month, after she went to the doctor with trouble breathing. She insisted that it was her asthma, and she responded to asthma medication, but her cellmate had tested positive, so she was forced to wait for her results with people who had been infected. ICE has refused to grant her parole on humanitarian grounds, despite several attacks in the last month.

“My health is not the best,” she wrote in a letter to a local advocate in Arizona a few weeks ago. “My fear is I’ll keep having these attacks. I just ask God to give me health.”

View of Eloy detention center, buildings surrounded by barbwire fences.

The Eloy Detention Center, a private prison owned by CoreCivic, houses detainees waiting the outcome of their deportation proceedings, July 9, 2019.

Photo: Norma Jean Gargasz/Alamy

“All the Workers Were Sick”

The spread of the coronavirus at Eloy seemed inevitable to the women held there.

“We can’t maintain social distancing because we have 50 women in each pod,” one woman wrote. “We touch the same things, the showers, microwave, chairs, tables, telephone.”

Keeping things sanitary was difficult. “We had to clean the cells with shampoo as chemicals were not provided to us,” one letter said. Several others added that the cleaning products they were given were diluted and ineffective. Correctional officers went from pod to pod, between the areas where people who had tested positive were being held in quarantine and the rest of the prison, without changing their protective gear. At mealtime, the food cart went between quarantined and nonquarantined areas. Multiple guards would reuse the same gloves and other gear, giving it a spray with disinfectant between rounds, the letters allege.

Medical attention, the women said, was terrible; there was none unless it was for Covid-19 symptoms, and in those cases, people were afraid that if they were thought to be infected, they’d be put into solitary. “When you get sick there, the only thing they tell you is ‘drink water,’ and ‘drink water,’ and ‘drink water,’ or maybe ‘take an ibuprofen and a lot of water,’” one woman told me.

“From what I’ve heard secondhand, you get no care when you get [Covid-19] in there,” said Kate MacNeil, a retired nurse who is a community advocate for people detained in Arizona. “It’s like being in solitary.” Multiple volunteers said they’d heard from people at Eloy and La Palma that even if they had symptoms, they would stay quiet about it because of how they’d be treated. A man held at Eloy told Mother Jones recently that while he was sick with the virus, he was held in isolation, had his temperature checked only sporadically, and was given only Tylenol and cough syrup after a week in isolation.

“Due to lack of staff to watch us the lockdowns are more frequent and longer. Many of us suffer from anxiety and claustrophobia.”

Setting aside the fear of contagion, women at Eloy suffered because of constant lockdowns and other deprivations because there were not enough staff. After the first positive cases were reported in late May, “everything seemed paralyzed during that time, no kitchen workers, no laundry workers, no maintenance, etc,” a Mexican woman wrote. The women were often locked in their cells for hours on end, with no access to the yard, commissary, library, telephones, or showers. “Saturday we were locked down 23 1/2 hours because there were only 2 officers for the whole unit, day and afternoon,” the Mexican woman reported.

“Due to lack of staff to watch us the lockdowns are more frequent and longer,” wrote another woman. “Many of us suffer from anxiety and claustrophobia.”

“They would tell us it was so we didn’t get infected, that it was better if we were in our cells,” said a Cuban woman, whom I will call Julia, who was released at the end of June. She asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing her asylum case. “But the truth was that they didn’t have workers. All the workers were sick.”

The women were told that they couldn’t have hot meals and received ham and cheese sandwiches, sometimes with an apple or some cookies, for three meals a day. A boiled egg in the morning, maybe a packaged burrito. Julia said that for two months she ate nothing but sandwiches.

“Sometimes they don’t even have ham, only cheese and bread. Sometimes they give us the bread with mold on it,” a letter writer noted. She also took issue with the guards’ lack of precautions moving between different parts of the prison. “When they bring the food cart knowing Charlie 100 has people with Covid-19 why would they put the food cart in their tank and then bring it in 200, 300, 400, 500?”

Two women I spoke with last week said that kitchen workers had just started up again, and that they now had one hot meal a day. “We’re still getting the boxes in the morning and for dinner,” one of them said. (CoreCivic said that hot meals had resumed on July 16.)

People who complained or pushed back faced retribution, several of the letters allege. Women were sent to solitary after refusing to take food they believed could have been contaminated because it came from an area under quarantine.

The letters echo the alarms raised by correctional staff at Eloy in recent weeks. A correctional officer who resigned in June following the death of his co-worker told the Arizona Republic that officers were told to ration masks and gloves, to wear garbage bags with holes cut in them as protective gear, and to keep working when they showed symptoms. The officer said that staff “who showed signs of fever were told to sit in a tent next to a swamp cooler until their temperature came down.” Many of the details of the guards’ allegations line up with the detainees: short-staffing, reused gear, watered-down cleaning products. There was little transparency, the guards said, when a staff member or detained person tested positive, putting those who had been in contact with them at risk.

“There was no information given in any of the briefings that we had about any of the pods that had positive cases in them,” Nicholas Berg, a guard who quit in early June, told the Republic. The guards also said the same things as the detainees about slow medical attention due to staff shortages, and that they often just told people to drink water.

“They take pictures when they hand out shampoo but things aren’t really like that.”

CoreCivic denied almost every detail of both the guards’ and detainees’ accounts, saying that there were adequate cleaning supplies, masks, and gloves, and that guards were required to remove their protective gear when leaving units housing people who had tested positive. The company disputed the women’s description of lockdowns, saying that they had not been confined to their cells or had their movement and privileges restricted for long periods of time.

Speaking to Congress on July 13, CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger explained the outbreak at Eloy as reflective of “a little bit of an uptick” in overall cases in Arizona. He also denied that pepper-spray had been used at CoreCivic facilities, despite several well-documented incidents. He then had to walk back the claim.

“Have we been perfect? Absolutely not,” Hininger said, but added, “I feel good that we’ve made the appropriate investments along the way.”

Multiple letters insisted that ICE and CoreCivic were not telling the truth about conditions at the center. “The people from ICE say that everything that’s been happening is under control, but it’s a lie, because every day there are more people infected,” one woman wrote. “They take pictures when they hand out shampoo but things aren’t really like that.”

Private prison operators and their federal clients tend to play a game of passing the buck, with people inside as with the media. A woman held at Eloy wrote that when she tried to complain to a visiting ICE officer, the official said, “Well good luck, because we ICE officers are in charge only of your cases, and CoreCivic is in charge of your safety.”

At least 15 people have died while in custody at Eloy since 2003, including five suicides. “The food, the lack of medical care has always been a problem at Eloy,” said Kee, who organizes a fund to provide bond, supply commissary accounts, and buy phone cards for people detained there. “Care has always been horrible, and now it’s even worse.”

A boy wearing a mask waits inside a truck with a banner reading "free them all" after a caravan protest around Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center to demand the release of ICE detainees due to safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 outbreak on April 16, 2020 in El Paso, TX.

A boy wearing a mask waits inside a truck with a banner reading “free them all” after a caravan protest around Immigration and Customs Enforcement El Paso Processing Center to demand the release of ICE detainees due to safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 outbreak on April 16, 2020 in El Paso, TX.

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

“They Don’t Want to Release People”

According to the agency’s latest figures, 3,780 people have tested positive for Covid-19 while in ICE custody, and three people have died. Advocates say ICE’s tally of positive tests likely undercounts the virus’s spread, given the lack of large-scale testing and frequent detainee transfers.

There are 22,142 people in ICE custody in facilities around the country. That’s a drastic drop from prepandemic levels, which ICE attributes to a combination of factors, including fewer people taken into custody along the border. The U.S. has invoked the pandemic to justify pushing almost everyone, including children, immediately back into Mexico. As The Intercept has reported, continuing deportations have certainly helped spread the coronavirus to the Caribbean and Latin America.

ICE claims that it takes medical vulnerabilities into account when determining whether to detain someone and that it has released hundreds of people who are at heightened risk. But in many cases, it’s taken lawsuits to force the agency’s hand.

Do you have a coronavirus story you want to share? Email us at coronavirus@theintercept.com or use one of these secure methods to contact a reporter.

For the people inside, ICE can’t move fast enough. Cecilia Valenzuela, who does humanitarian work at Eloy and La Palma, said that a Venezuelan woman she is helping was granted withholding of removal — a status that keeps her from being returned to a country where she fears persecution — three months ago. But ICE had appealed the judge’s decision and so she simply has to wait in jail.

“The people who have bond, give them their bond,” said Julia, the Cuban woman. “Get them out. The sick people, give them humanitarian parole.”

“I had my bond hearing on June 11. And my partner, thank God, was already out. He got out before I did, and he paid my bond. He had to call and call because 13 days went by, and they didn’t put me in the system because everyone was in quarantine,” she told me.

“The problem is that they don’t want to release people. They always try to keep them in,” her partner added.

Julia said she was in touch with family members of some of the women she knew at Eloy. “It’s still bad,” she said. “Just yesterday I heard about a woman who was with us, and she had her court date in July. For asylum. She had her court date in July and they moved it to August, and yesterday I learned that she has coronavirus.”

Julia and her partner are free now, staying with friends in Arizona, and they wish the same for all the other immigrants they were held with. “They should give them a chance,” Julia’s partner said. “Inside, when one person gets infected, they’re going to all get infected, because everyone is hermetically sealed in there.”

“Breathing the same air. Everyone,” Julia finished his sentence.

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