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PW special report, Part Four: COVID-19 pandemic poses dire threat to NC prisons and jails

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Image: Adobe Stock

Disease poised to spread like “wildfire” at overcrowded ICE detention facilities

[Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a four-part series examining the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to jails, prisons and other detention facilities. The reports highlight stories about incarcerated individuals, staff members who are charged with caring for them and the Cooper administration’s response to calls for change before a potential outbreak. Read Parts One [2], Two [3] and Three [4].]

At Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia, 350 immigrants began starving themselves last week to protest the conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ana María Reichenbach, who used to live in North Carolina but is now in New York, spoke to Policy Watch last week about her friend who is being detained at Stewart, where immigrants picked up in North Carolina, as well as other states, are housed.

She said her friend participated in the hunger strike.

“I’m just really, really worried about how rapidly it’s going to spread,” she said of coronavirus there. “These are folks who are already being dehumanized for the fact that they’re being put into cages. This is my friend, you know, it’s someone that I love and care for deeply.”

She was helping spread the message about the strike, so the facility allegedly blocked her number so that her friend could no longer reach her.

“I think the concern now is that I don’t really know what’s happening,” she said, with an air of desperation. “Knowing how this is being handled for the rest of us … it seems like the response is going to be even worse there.”

As COVID-19 spreads through immigration detention centers across the nation, protests and hunger strikes are on the rise. At least two employees at Stewart Detention Center, which is privately owned by the CoreCivic company, have tested positive. Elsewhere, ICE has reported at least 13 detainees [5] in eight detention facilities who have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as seven staff people who work in its facilities. (Many news outlets have reported more cases.) The agency has reported 48 infected ICE employees who don’t work in detention facilities.

Both ICE and CoreCivic have reported taking precautions to protect their populations as jails and prisons: They’re isolating sick detainees and screening staff. They’ve cancelled in-person visitation. They’re encouraging social distancing.

Advocates and doctors say the problem, though, is that ICE detention facilities don’t allow for social distancing. At Stewart, as many as 62 detainees sleep in open floor pods on rows of bunk beds bolted to the floor.

Reichenbach described grim sleeping arrangements and a shortage of toilet paper at the facility; her friend told her they only get one roll every two weeks.

“Not only are you kind of sleeping and breathing on top of each other, you’re sharing three toilets among those 62 people and sharing sinks,” Reichenbach said. “And what scares me the most is that the government just doesn’t care. These are the folks that they think are worthless, so what’s going to happen to all our friends or family or parents?

“It’s very dark and sad and disempowering, to be honest.”

‘Ticking time bomb

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Dr. Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Dr. Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said during a teleconference last week that ICE should be releasing detainees to reduce crowding for all of the reasons Reichenbach mentioned and more: a lack of sanitation; an inability to social distance; poor access to health care; and a long history of infectious disease outbreaks in detention centers.

“Everything we can do to reduce population density will help reduce the spread,” he said of COVID-19. “These facilities are also dangerous for all the people who work in them, and there is no way either to protect people inside from exposure or the communities around them from the risk of serious outbreaks and the need for people to have advanced medical care.”

Dr. Josiah Rich and a fellow doctor sent a whistleblower letter to Congress warning members of the “ticking time bomb” that immigration detention centers will become if ICE doesn’t release detainees who don’t pose a public safety threat.

Rich was a medical expert for the US Department of Homeland Security, where he evaluated its health care system, but is now a whistleblower represented by the Government Accountability Project. He is also a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University.

“This will spread like wildfire through these facilities and create a surge in cases that will need to go and burden outside hospitals at a time when they are going to be flat out and unable to accommodate that type of burden of disease,” he said.

Rich highlighted that while detention centers are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, that guidance is focused on correctional facilities and the staff running them.

“But we need a higher level to look at this, because this first thing, the most important thing is to get that census down. Many of these facilities are at capacity or above capacity, and when you have that, once it gets in there, it spreads quickly,” Rich said. “You have no options to slow down the spread.

Rich said he could not “overemphasize” the urgency of the issue facing ICE.

“That is a critical issue, and the CDC guidelines are not aimed at the people who have the ability to release people. Correctional authorities, they have no control over who gets sent to them and who they are allowed to release; that’s a higher authority. In this case, that’s ICE – they have that authority.”

States can act

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Silky Shah, Detention Watch Network

While medical experts called for ICE to respond, Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network [8], said states like North Carolina can be proactive. ICE contracts with several North Carolina facilities to hold immigration detainees, including a jail in Alamance County.

Byron Tucker, a public information officer for the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email Friday there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the jail. At the time, the incarcerated population was at 443.

Asked how many of those incarcerated were ICE detainees, Tucker referred Policy Watch to ICE, which did not return an email seeking comment.

Tucker said the sheriff’s office began implementing more than a dozen safety and sanitation protocols in early March to address and reduce the impact of COVID-19 on the jail staff and inmates: using a special medical screening form for all booked arrestees; suspending in-person visitation except for professional reasons; and using extra court personnel and school resource officers to help with staffing.

He said the jail director also maintains a list of chronically ill incarcerated people from the facility’s medical provider. Those with respiratory issues are reported to the district attorney, who determines if they can be released or have their bonds lowered.

Incarcerated people who could be released because of the threat of the virus have their cases reviewed by a jail liaison to help expedite their cases, Tucker said

It’s not clear if the same protocols related to release and expedition of cases apply to ICE detainees. But it’s unlikely, since they are considered to be the responsibility of the federal government.

ICE has central authority to release any detainees in its custody, according to Rich, the medical expert who worked for DHS. If the agency wanted to, he said, it could release everyone in its custody.

Shah pointed out that at least 6,000 people in ICE custody have already passed “credible fear” interviews — successfully demonstrating that they would be at significant risk of persecution or torture if they return to their home countries — and are seeking asylum. Most of the rest of the detainees are in custody for non-compliance issues. There are community alternatives for them to stay involved with the court system, but outside of detention, she said.

She added that counties could make the case to the federal government to release ICE detainees, because they have not yet gone to trial.

Siembra NC [9] has been closely monitoring the situation in North Carolina and beyond. The organization of Latinx people is focused on defending rights and building power for people “with papers and without papers,” according to its website. The group has teams in Alamance, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Orange, Randolph and Wake counties.

Andrew Willis Garcés, the organization’s director, reported in a recent news release that he received calls from detained immigrants, who described a dire situation and a growing sense of panic at Stewart. He said members of the organization have written letters to ICE, Congress and other officials asking for help.

“We’re just waiting to get infected,” said Ventura Quintanar-Rico, 32, of Mexico, in one of the Siembra calls. “They’re not taking the most basic coronavirus precautions at this place. If one of us gets infected, all of us will; we are not able to stay six feet apart from each other. … We don’t want to die here, and it usually takes three to four days to get medical attention here.”

Other members of Siembra who are detained at Stewart reported to the organization that ICE officers held meetings with them and told them if they get sick or don’t eat, they still will remain in custody, according to Garcés.

“There’s a lot of fear about what’s going to happen,” Garcés said.