Karim Golding began to feel sick in late June. He stayed inside his cell at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, suffering from a fever, a pounding headache, cold sweats, and an “onion burning sensation” behind his eyes. He slept for days on end. When he finally felt well enough to reemerge, “the entire unit is sick,” Golding recalled. “Everybody have some symptom or the other.”
Three months earlier, as The Intercept previously reported, Golding, who has asthma, was a lead organizer of a protest inside the jail pushing for stronger measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Now, as he looked around, he realized that the detainees’ worst fears had come true.
Etowah, which contracts with the federal government to hold people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stated in court documents that it was taking precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including quarantining new arrivals, implementing social distancing measures, and providing cleaning supplies. But Golding and more than a dozen other ICE detainees say the measures taken were inadequate and led to a massive Covid-19 outbreak.
Seven of the men say they were given only one disposable mask every three weeks. One shared a photo of what he said were the only “cleaning supplies” he’d received: a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, and combination shampoo/body wash, which came inside a gift bag from the Salvation Army emblazoned with the words “Merry Christmas.”
Immigrants inside Etowah also said that many new arrivals were quarantined for five or eight days rather than the recommended two-week period, potentially allowing the virus to spread. According to a partial Etowah roster obtained by The Intercept and In These Times, ICE transferred at least 24 people into the facility in June. By the second half of July, the agency reported that 21 detainees — nearly a quarter of those housed in Etowah’s ICE unit — were sick.
When Golding came out of his cell and saw the condition of those around him, the organizer part of his brain clicked back on. “I’m looking at people that’s literally looking pale in the face,” he said. “And medical is doing nothing for them.” Golding decided to tell everyone in the unit to request a test for Covid-19.
“So you have Africans, you have Jamaicans, you have El Salvadorans — you have different groups,” Golding explained. “What I did was say, ‘Hey, listen, you talk to your peoples, you tell them this.’”
Many people were apprehensive about asking for a test, as guards had already put the few who were presumed positive into solitary confinement, a fate the United Nations says amounts to torture. In solitary, detainees said they were locked in cells without air conditioning for around 23 hours a day. The average high temperature in July in Gadsden is 91 degrees.
Nevertheless, by July 4, everyone in the unit — more than 80 people — had put in requests to be tested, according to interviews with Golding and another detainee, as well as the affidavits of nine detainees included in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus Golding filed on his own behalf in the Northern District of Alabama in September.
Two days later, according to the 11 detainees, Etowah County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mike O’Bryant called a lockdown of the unit and read out the names of 10 detainees who’d been especially vocal in calling for mass testing, including Golding. O’Bryant told them to pack their bags because they were being sent to solitary confinement. At the time of their transfer, none had tested positive for Covid-19. All 11 sources said they felt this was punishment and retaliation for requesting the coronavirus tests.
“I noticed that all of us who were randomly picked were the ones who were vocal, outspoken, and shown desire to be tested,” Stanley Walden wrote in an affidavit dated August 7.
“He hand-picked cells and made an example in front of everyone that he really meant to throw anyone who get tested into a dungeon,” Sebastian Abalo Cunna wrote in an affidavit dated July 28. “It feels like punishment for standing up for our right to health and safety.”
After locking down the unit, the captain and other staff members went cell to cell asking the remaining detainees if they still wanted to be tested for Covid-19, according to Golding and the affidavits of nine others. Most detainees revoked their requests and agreed to sign waivers saying they no longer wanted to be tested.
In a recorded conversation involving two Etowah employees obtained by The Intercept and In These Times, one employee described the events of July 6 as an attempt to “bully” people into not getting tested. Afterward, both employees said in the recording, immigrants inside Etowah appeared too scared to seek even basic medical care.
Four of those who were sent to solitary confinement said they were unable to communicate with their families for days, leading some concerned family members to call the facility. The relatives of one detainee said jail staff assured them that their family member was fine; at the time, he was in solitary confinement having developed symptoms of Covid-19. Golding’s mother said she was told there was no evidence of the virus at the facility, even as ICE listed at least one coronavirus case at Etowah on its website. According to the family members interviewed for this story, neither ICE nor Etowah ever reached out to tell them their loved ones were sick.
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to detailed questions from The Intercept and In These Times about the jail’s Covid-19 precautions, the detainees’ allegations of retaliation, and whether detainees had authorized the release of their medical information to family members.
“The health, safety, and welfare of those in our care remain a top priority and concern for the agency,” a spokesperson for ICE wrote in an emailed statement. “Since the outbreak of Covid-19, ICE has taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of cohorting and medical isolation.”
ICE’s public guidance on how detention centers should respond to the pandemic says “facilities must ensure that medical isolation is operationally distinct from administrative or disciplinary segregation, or any punitive form of housing.” Yet, as a previous investigation by The Intercept found, a number of ICE facilities have failed to adhere to this requirement. According to detainees at Etowah, solitary confinement was used not only as leverage to discourage requests for testing, but also to isolate people with Covid-19.
The Intercept and In These Times spoke with five men who tested positive for Covid-19 while detained at Etowah. Each said he spent weeks in solitary.
Shemoi Edwards developed Covid-19 symptoms just days before Golding. At first, he planned to quietly sweat out the illness. But with a history of bronchitis and a recent diagnosis of sickle cell trait, he got too scared to ride it out on his own. He hobbled over to an officer and told him he felt like he’d been hit by a truck. Not long afterward, Edwards said, he was transferred to solitary.
The men universally described the conditions in solitary confinement as squalid. In their affidavits, many expressed distress that they no longer had access to mental health professionals, the law library, sunlight, or fresh air. “Civil detention have turned into torture,” Falaye Kourouma wrote.
Bakhodir Madjitov, who was deported in September, wrote that there were cockroaches and flies in the unit. Golding wrote that he was fed uncooked frozen food and didn’t have access to drinking water because the sink in his cell didn’t flow properly.
“No one wants to be treated how I am currently being treated,” Dawa Sherpa wrote in his affidavit. “I fear that I may die here at Etowah County Detention Center.”
One detainee said he spent 21 days in isolation. Another counted 35 days, and a third counted 54. Golding said he was in solitary confinement from July 6 until August 28. Edwards said he was put in isolation on June 29 and wasn’t released until July 28.
“We was getting the same treatment as [when] you get in trouble,” Edwards said in an interview. “Even though it’s probably a different word — it’s ‘isolation’— it’s still a form of punishment that they’re putting us in.”
Edwards received the results from his coronavirus test on July 8; he was positive. One day later, Golding received the same bad news.
In isolation, the men say, their phone access was limited. They could only make calls during a brief daily free period (no more than 75 minutes), which occurred on an irregular schedule. Sometimes, they said, it might be in the middle of the night.
Before he got sick, Edwards would speak with his mother and brother a few times each week. After not hearing from him during the first week of July, his brother Nickoy Edwards, who is a police officer in Flint, Michigan, called Etowah. The first person he spoke to transferred him to someone else. “That person answered and told me that they looked in the computer and they told me Shemoi is OK. He’s on the floor. And nothing is wrong with him.”
Nickoy believed the facility — at first. Then, a few weeks later, his brother finally called, telling Nickoy he was in solitary confinement and had the coronavirus.
Nickoy called Etowah again. “And they told me the same thing: ‘He’s OK.’”
“I felt like they weren’t telling the truth,” Nickoy said. “I was a little upset and concerned because I want him to be OK.”
Their mother, Tyson Mills, also began to worry. When she was finally able to get through to Etowah, Mills explained who she was and asked about her son. “Ma’am, he’s OK,” Mills said she was told. “He’s all right. Nothing to worry about.” She said it was suggested that her son didn’t have enough money on his commissary account to call. “It wasn’t nice,” Mills said. “I was like breaking down in tears.”
Golding’s mother, Mervine Duhaney-Metzgar, said she called Etowah six times after not hearing from her son. At first, her calls were transferred between different people. “And it happened that I called again, and they told me that everything is OK, and there’s no evidence of any illness being there. And I know that wasn’t true,” she said. “It was very disturbing as a mother.”
Nicholas Phillips, Shemoi Edwards’s attorney, said the lack of communication isn’t surprising. “ICE is essentially kind of a closed book to us,” he said. “Etowah adds another level of complexity to it because Etowah is a county jail. And so it’s not really run by ICE. It’s run by the Etowah County sheriff’s department.”
According to a 2015 agreement between Etowah and the federal government, Etowah is responsible for medical care inside the facility. But ICE’s 36-page guidance on how detention facilities should handle the pandemic does not say anything about how (or whether) facilities should notify the family members of immigrants who get sick.
Jessica Vosburgh, an attorney at the Adelante Alabama Worker Center, has represented immigrants seeking release from Etowah because of medical conditions that put them at risk during the pandemic. “Because the jail is a health care provider, HIPAA applies to them,” Vosburgh said of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “They have to respect patient privacy, which means not disclosing someone’s medical information without their consent.”
“When I need to get someone’s medical records from Etowah, I need their signed consent and then [the jail] can share it with me. And I think it would work similarly for a family member,” Vosburgh said. “I don’t think there’s anything in HIPAA that would require or allow people to lie or provide false information about someone’s health. That’s different than not disclosing, right? If there’s something they can’t disclose, they just have to say, ‘I can’t disclose.’”
“Even if someone is being imprisoned, they have the right to proper health, to proper medical attention,” Golding’s mother, Duhaney-Metzgar, said. Even before Golding got sick, she had contacted her congressperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, asking for an investigation into how her son had been treated in ICE custody and requesting that he be transferred to a facility closer to home.
“My office has repeatedly reached out to follow up on the case for Mrs. Metzgar’s son Karim, and it has been months since their last reply,” Meeks said of ICE. “ICE’s response time is simply unacceptable, especially now during a pandemic when it’s a matter of health and safety.”
“I am so hurt deep down with what’s going on,” Duhaney-Metzgar said. “Behind it, I strongly know that it’s an act of racism.”
Phillips, Edwards’s attorney, agreed. “This administration, in my view, does not give a shit about detainees, immigration detainees,” he said. “So how does it fit into the kind of larger discussion about racial justice and Black Lives Matter? I think it’s an integral aspect of that. I mean, immigration detention is, in many ways, simply an extension of the kind of mass incarceration crisis that America has gone through.”
The criminal justice system and the immigration system are deeply entangled, with harsh consequences for Black immigrants in particular. One out of every five people facing deportation because of a criminal conviction is Black. As of July, about half of the people detained by ICE at Etowah were Black, including Golding, Edwards, and many of the other men interviewed for this story. Several are lawful permanent residents who lost their green cards and became “deportable” after criminal convictions.
Rather than accept deportation, many immigrants remain at Etowah for years as they fight their cases, often because they have nothing to go back to. Golding and Edwards were both born in Jamaica and came to the United States as children. Edwards, now 30, arrived at 15 on a green card; most of his family now lives in the United States. Golding, now 36, arrived at age 9 to reunite with his mother, who had fled an abusive relationship. He has never been back to Jamaica.
Before being incarcerated by ICE, Golding served a 10-year sentence in federal prison. He and his family say they didn’t know there would be immigration consequences for his criminal conviction and that he has served his time.
“I just want my son to get to come home,” Golding’s mother said. “Every one of us has the right to be forgiven.”
Edwards was nearing one month in isolation when his third Covid-19 test came back positive. Medical staff at Etowah had informed detainees that they would need two consecutive negative tests to leave solitary and return to the general population — so when a guard later woke Edwards up and told him to pack his things, he was confused. “I thought I was going back to my original unit,” he said. But then a sergeant appeared and told him he was being released.
“And I’m like, OK!” Edwards said. “So I just got to packing, you know, packed all my legal work, and I gave all my commissary away to everybody.”
Two weeks earlier, on July 16, Edwards’s attorney had won a case on behalf of a lawful permanent resident named Jervis Glenroy Jack. The federal government had sought to deport Jack based on a conviction for unlawful gun possession in New York state, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the state-level gun conviction did not qualify as a deportable offense.
Edwards’s case was nearly identical to Jack’s: Edwards, a longtime permanent resident, served two and a half years in prison on a similar conviction in New York. When Edwards was out on parole, immigration authorities took him into custody.
Doing his own legal research, Edwards came across the Jack case in 2019 and contacted Phillips, who agreed to represent him. After Phillips won Jack, he assumed the reversal would also help Edwards, but no one from ICE notified him until moments before Edwards was released.
Outside Etowah, Edwards asked the ICE officer for his ID and a Greyhound bus ticket. “I’m basically explaining to him, like, I’m from New York. How are you going to bring me all the way down here and then just tell me that you just gonna release me with no ID, no bus ticket, plane ticket, no nothing to get back to my family?” Edwards said. “He was saying that because the way I won my case, he’s not entitled to give me anything.”
The ICE officer did give Edwards something: directions to a Greyhound bus station a mile away. After that, Edwards was on his own. He had about $100 and a dead cellphone. It was 87 degrees as he started his walk down the four-lane highway, schlepping a heavy black garbage bag full of legal paperwork. He stopped at the first gas station he saw to buy a mask. Etowah released him with a mask that was weeks old and filthy, Edwards said, despite the fact that he had recently tested positive for the virus.
When he finally made it to the bus station, he asked about the next trip to New York. Two days, the person at the counter said. And Flint? A week. His best bet would be to keep walking up to Walmart, where he could buy a phone or a charger.
At Walmart, Edwards started making calls: to Phillips, to his brother, and to Shut Down Etowah, an organization that helps immigrants after their release from ICE custody. “I basically explained my situation, and they said, ‘We’re gonna have somebody come and pick you up. Just stay at the Walmart.’”
Shut Down Etowah booked Edwards on a flight to Detroit that same evening, and a volunteer accompanied him to the airport in Birmingham. It was eerily empty, and Edwards was nervous. He didn’t have any identification and worried he would be sent back to jail.
“My main mindset was that I do not want to go through this in a different jail,” Edwards said. “Even if it’s for two, three hours, or even a day. I do not want to do that.”
The volunteer from Shut Down Etowah did most of the talking, pulling different legal documents out of Edwards’s bag to explain to the airport security officer who he was and why he didn’t have an ID. Somehow it worked.
“I guess the guy must have felt sorry for me,” Edwards said.
Arriving in Michigan felt surreal to Edwards. Everyone had grown up so much in the years he’d been away. “They literally was babies when I left,” Edwards said. His mom calls every day to hear his voice, but he hasn’t been able to see her. She lives in Massachusetts, and Edwards hasn’t been able to get a driver’s license.
Edwards now works long hours at a factory, and he’s decided to stay in Flint. He’s started working with Shut Down Etowah and speaks with college students and other groups about his experience in immigration detention and the criminal justice system. After almost a decade behind bars, he doesn’t believe anyone should be incarcerated, especially not for immigration violations.
“You saying we incarcerate somebody for rehabilitation? I don’t see it. They don’t rehabilitate you. They just put you in there till your time up and be like, ‘Go.’ That’s it,” he said. “I don’t feel like we have the right to do that.”
Edwards, Golding, and the other men interviewed for this story who contracted the virus while at Etowah say they’re experiencing possible long-term symptoms of Covid-19: trouble breathing, exhaustion, gastrointestinal problems, and more. While Edwards is at home with family, Golding remains alone and in custody. “ICE detention has been far more degrading than any prison confinement I have experienced,” Golding said. “As far as rights go, you basically have no rights.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.