Women detained at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, Louisiana, have been put on a communications lockdown after internal protests in response to a possible case of tuberculosis among the detained population, a lack of prompt medical treatment, and poor communication about their immigration cases.
Six women at the private immigration facility, which is run by the prison conglomerate GEO Group on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told The Intercept on Thursday that staff had informed them a woman at the facility had tested positive for the serious bacterial infection, and that they would have to go into quarantine, which entails remaining in their cells without joint meals and recreation time. The notification set off a minor panic among the detained population.
Mindy Faciane, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, confirmed that department staff had been informed of a possible tuberculosis case at the facility and were working with ICE personnel to monitor the situation. “We are aware of a detainee with a suspected case. It has not been confirmed. ICE detainees in federal facilities are treated at those facilities, so they don’t come through our public health system, but our regional team is providing treatments and contact investigation guidance to the facility staff,” she said, adding that ICE was following the health department’s guidance.
A representative for the GEO Group did not respond to questions about the situation. ICE acknowledged receiving questions on Friday but did not provide comment.
The situation, compounded by the women’s perception of lax medical care at the detention facility, caused them to protest by refusing to enter lockdown and collectively clamoring for more detailed information and commitments for improved care. Detention staff responded to the acts of protest by taking away the women’s access to phones and tablets to communicate, as well as access to televisions, according to a woman who managed to contact The Intercept before the lockdown began, and the husband of another woman who relayed the same details the following morning. Last year, staff at the facility took similar measures against women who spoke publicly about their fears of Covid-19, which ICE failed to adequately deal with.
Medical negligence has long been one of the most common complaints for people in ICE custody. The issue garnered national attention last year amid allegations of nonconsensual hysterectomies of women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. Over the years, detained migrants across ICE facilities have accused the agency of failing to provide or providing incorrect medications, ignoring requests for treatment, and releasing detainees who are sick to the point of near death. Medical negligence claims have been investigated and substantiated by congressional committees and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.
Tuberculosis is incredibly rare among the general U.S. population, with an active rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions more have what’s known as latent TB, meaning that the bacteria is present in their bodies but at low enough quantities that it doesn’t become symptomatic. Incidences of tuberculosis are not unheard of among people in ICE custody; according to a study that examined the ICE detainee population in the years 2014 through 2016, they have an infection rate closer to 100 per 100,000, though most are asymptomatic.
Dr. Ranit Mishori, a professor at Georgetown University and senior medical adviser to Physicians for Human Rights, told The Intercept via email that “medically, not everyone who screens positive necessarily has active disease,” but that they should nonetheless be isolated “ideally in a negative pressure room. NOT in solitary confinement,” and have their cellmates, visiting family members, and other close contacts screened as well.
According to the women who spoke to The Intercept from the Louisiana facility, the woman with suspected tuberculosis was actively symptomatic for days, if not weeks, prior to her removal from the unit. According to three separate people, the young Brazilian asylum-seeker had been at the center for about two months and had long been visibly sick and deteriorating rapidly before she was taken away on June 4. It was not until June 10 that other people detained at the facility were told it was a suspected TB case, they told The Intercept.
“You could see in her face that she was sick. In the two months she was here waiting for her [asylum] process, she dropped 30 pounds. Who drops 30 pounds, no matter how bad the food is?” said one asylum-seeker at the center. “She started coughing really badly, seems like she was in late stages of the disease, they finally took her away because she was vomiting, spitting up blood.” The Intercept is granting anonymity to the detained migrants due to the retaliation they say they have faced at the detention facility and their fear that being identified will affect their ongoing immigration cases.
Another woman who spoke to The Intercept also said she saw the young woman coughing up blood. A third woman, who was in the same unit, said that the woman “was coughing all the time, not eating, she would spend all night up complaining.”
It is not clear where the person with a suspected infection is being cared for, if she is being properly isolated, if the people in her unit will now all be screened for tuberculosis, or how staff at the facility will ensure that the spread is contained.
If left untreated, tuberculosis can become life-threatening, particularly if it infects someone who has or is recovering from a Covid-19 infection. According to ICE statistics, as recently as in mid-May there were over 60 simultaneous confirmed cases of Covid-19 at South Louisiana. This week, the facility reported none, though the lack of consistent testing leaves open the possibility of unreported cases. “Many of the women here are terrified, don’t know much about the disease but they tell us it’s lethal,” said the woman who witnessed the coughing of blood. “I already had Covid, and so I’m a bit scared because they marked me as recovered but never gave me a test.”