COVID-19 cases spiking again at some ICE detention centers
Several immigration detention centers in the U.S. are experiencing new spikes in COVID-19 cases.
ICE officials attribute the spikes to newly arrived immigrants transferred to ICE detention facilities from Border Patrol facilities near the border with Mexico, where there has been an influx of migrants and asylum seekers.
Many critics, however, say a failure by Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Biden administration to systematically administer vaccines to detainees has led to the rise in new cases.
Critics say ICE has failed to adhere to other Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including reducing unnecessary transfers of detainees between ICE detention facilities, where detainees live in tight quarters behind bars and the virus can easily spread.
Medical experts fear that recent outbreaks in some ICE detention facilities not only endanger the health of detainees and staff, but could spread to surrounding communities at a time when more states are relaxing COVID-19 safety precautions.
Data posted on ICE’s website and interviews with immigrant advocates and attorneys show COVID-19 spikes are happening at several immigration detention facilities owned and operated by private, for-profit companies that contract with ICE.
Those facilities include three facilities owned and operated by Nashville-based CoreCivic: the La Palma Correctional Center and Eloy Detention Center, both located in Eloy, Arizona, and the Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi.
ICE data shows a spike in COVID-19 cases also has occurred at the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Louisiana. That immigration detention center is owned and operated by LaSalle Corrections, based in Ruston, Louisiana.
The new spikes are happening at ICE facilities that have had COVID-19 troubles in the past. What’s more, detainees and some correctional officers have raised alarms about inadequate COVID-19 precautions at some of the same facilities, which ICE officials and private contractors have denied.
In April 2020, a lawsuit was filed against Adams County Correctional Center on behalf of seven medically vulnerable detainees claiming insufficient COVID-19 precautions at the Adams facility, including being housed in dorms of up to 120 people, staff members who didn’t wear masks or gloves and some detainees not having access to soap.
A correctional officer at the Eloy Detention Center died in June 2020 after contracting the virus, prompting a correctional officer to speak out publicly about what he claimed were unsafe conditions at the facility. The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health later concluded that CoreCivic did not violate any health and safety standards.
At the La Palma Correctional Center, guards fired pepper spray and pepper balls to quell a peaceful protest in April 2020 by detainees over concerns about COVID-19 precautions, a recent government watchdog report revealed. At least 1,217 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the La Palma facility since the pandemic started, the highest total of any ICE facility, according to ICE data.
Two correctional officers at the LaSalle Corrections-owned Richwood Correctional Center died in April 2020 after contracting the coronavirus.
LaSalle Corrections owns the Irwin County Detention Center. That is one of two immigration detention centers the Biden administration announced earlier this month will be closed amid reports of medical misconduct.
ICE data shows there are 400 active confirmed COVID-19 cases currently under isolation or monitoring at the Adams facility, the highest number of any facility in the nation, 192 cases at the Richwood facility, the second-highest, 157 cases at the Eloy facility, the third highest, and 155 cases at the La Palma facility, the fourth highest.
COVID-19 cases at those four facilities total 904. That represents 45% of the total 2,007 COVID-19 cases ICE is monitoring at the 131 facilities, including three hotels, being used to house immigration detainees in ICE custody, according to an analysis of ICE data.
CoreCivic officials said the data posted on ICE’s website regarding its facilities is inaccurate.
“There are some discrepancies between the COVID cases being reported on the ICE website and the actual case numbers, which we are working with our government partner to address,” Ryan Gustin, CoreCivic’s manager of public affairs, said Friday in an email.
CoreCivic officials provided their own separate data showing a huge discrepancy with the official data reported on the ICE website. As of May 24, there were 39 active COVID-19 cases at Adams, 45 at Eloy, and 35 at La Palma, according to Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs.
“Reporting any other COVID case numbers would be factually inaccurate,” Gilchrist said in an email. “Also, the vast majority of active cases entered the facility COVID-positive.”
CoreCivic and ICE did not respond to a request asking to explain the discrepancy between the data provided by CoreCivic and the data posted on the official ICE website. CoreCivic also did not respond to a request to provide any documentation it has shared with ICE as part of CoreCivic’s efforts to get ICE to correct the incorrect data it claims is posted on the ICE website.
LaSalle Corrections, the company that operates Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, did not respond to requests for comment.
During a May 13 hearing in front of members of Congress, ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson was asked what percentage of immigration detainees had been fully vaccinated.
Johnson said he was not sure.
“If I remember correctly, it’s like 20% have had at least one shot, but let me confirm that that is the case,” Johnson testified.
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., who asked the question, said that Johnson had testified earlier that 1,229 detainees had been fully vaccinated as of May 5, and based on data she had received that was about only 7% of the detained population.
“I am concerned because at 7% that would lag far behind both the nation as a whole, and at 20%, sir, because over one-third of American adults are fully vaccinated and even the Federal Bureau of Prisons has one-third of their incarcerated people fully vaccinated,” Underwood said.
As of May 26, 50% of U.S. adults had been fully vaccinated and nearly 62% of adults had received at least one vaccination, according to the CDC.
Critic: ICE explanation is ‘ugly scapegoating at its worst’
The latest COVID-19 spikes at detention centers in the U.S. are surprising considering that cases overall have dropped sharply in recent months in most states after earlier waves during the winter and last summer.
The COVID-19 spikes come as the number of people detained behind bars in ICE custody has shot up under President Joe Biden’s administration.
ICE officials said the recent COVID-19 spikes have been caused by transfers to immigration detention centers from border facilities. The U.S. has struggled to cope with a wave of migrants crossing the border illegally, including families who have been waiting for months in dangerous conditions in Mexico for a chance to seek asylum in the U.S.
“Some ICE facilities have seen an increase in the number of noncitizens being transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody from border facilities resulting in an apparent rise in COVID-19 cases among new arrivals to the facility,” ICE acting press secretary Paige Hughes said in a written statement.
Hughes credited on-site medical professionals with “reducing the risk of further spreading the disease by immediately testing, identifying and isolating the exposed detainees to mitigate the spread of infection, in accordance with CDC guidelines.”
ICE and medical professionals at detention facilities are working with local health departments to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to the community and are vaccinating detainees who request vaccinations, Hughes said.
“Medical center staff took the necessary steps to quickly isolate the exposed detainees, provide proper medical care and prevent further spread of infection within the facility to detainees already in residence. Preventative steps included early recognition and following the guidelines established by the CDC and the ICE Health Services Corps,” Hughes said.
Mariana Casal Singletary, the epidemiologist for Pinal County, where La Palma and Eloy detention centers are located in Arizona, attributed recent increases in COVID-19 cases at those facilities to “intakes” of immigrants recently apprehended at the border and transferred to ICE facilities.
Many of the immigrants the facilities have received have tested positive for a more transmissible strain of the virus that was first detected in the U.K., she said. It is also now the most dominant strain in Arizona.
It is already very difficult to manage a COVID-19 outbreak inside a congregate setting and the introduction of the more transmissible strain is making it even harder, she said.
“They keep receiving so many intakes from the border, and they have received variants that we call variants of concern,” Casal Singletary said.
Casal Singletary said the increase in COVID-19 cases reported at the two ICE detention centers is the result of a lag in test results, not just a recent spike in actual new cases.
Overall, ICE and CoreCivic “are doing what they can to control” the outbreak, she said.
“They follow all the infection prevention measures that they can, but their biggest challenge is that they keep receiving people and these people can come, let’s say, exposed from other places, but develop the disease inside and they are counted cases when the transmission is not really inside. So it’s very difficult to interpret the data,” Casal Singletary said.
Critics say ICE has failed to systematically offer COVID-19 vaccines to detainees, which has led to spikes at detention facilities, where detainees live in close quarters that can cause the virus to easily spread.
“It’s absolutely outrageous that there are still COVID-19 outbreaks taking place in immigration detention six months after vaccines have been approved and given that there was a surplus of unused vaccine in the United States,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “This is really ICE’s failure for its poor implementation of vaccine rollout in the facilities.”
ICE has left local officials with the responsibility of procuring and administering COVID-19 vaccines to people detained under ICE custody, Cho said.
That has led to a patchwork supply of COVID-19 vaccines being given to the growing number of people being held in immigration detention centers, and sowed confusion in several states over who is responsible for vaccinating detainees, Cho said.
“This is quite problematic” because COVID-19 can spread quickly in congregate settings such as detention facilities, and then can spread outside the facility to the community in general, Cho said.
Cho rejected ICE’s claim that the recent COVID-19 spikes at immigration detention facilities have been fueled by transfers of immigrants from Border Patrol facilities near the border.
“ICE’s attempt to blame the spread of COVID-19 within its own facilities, where it is entirely preventable through a rigorous vaccination and quarantine program, is simply scapegoating and ugly scapegoating at its worst,” Cho said.
The increasing number of people held in immigration detention centers and the continued transfer of detainees between ICE facilities has added to the problem, Cho said.
“This is partially a disaster of ICE’s own making,” Cho said.
During the pandemic, the Trump administration began releasing some immigrants from detention centers, in part due to pressure from immigrant advocates and also as the result of lawsuits, to try to control COVID-19 outbreaks at several ICE facilities, and minimize the spread inside ICE detention centers. The Trump administration also implemented a policy under Title 42 of the health code to quickly expel most immigrants apprehended by the Border Patrol, including asylum seekers, amid the pandemic, which also resulted in fewer people being detained in ICE facilities.
But in recent months under the Biden administration, the number of people being held in immigration detention centers has increased after dropping significantly in the final months of the Trump administration as more asylum seekers under the Biden administration have been allowed to remain in the U.S. rather than expelled.
There were 19,041 people being held in immigration detention centers as of May 13, according to ICE data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
That is a 34% increase from the 14,195 immigrants in ICE detention during the final days of the Trump administration, but far below the 50,922 people in ICE detention in September 2019 under the height of the Trump administration, according to the TRAC data.
Transfers also blamed for case rise
Sarah Loicano, a spokesperson for the New Orleans ICE field office, attributed the rise in COVID-19 cases at Adams to an increase in the number of detainees transferred into ICE custody from border facilities.
The detained population at Adams has risen since early this year, she said in a written statement.
“While the rising numbers of COVID positive cases may seem indicative of an outbreak, it’s important to note that the population at Adams County has also greatly increased in recent weeks,” she said.
The average daily population at Adams in May was 1,099. By comparison, the population was at 267 in December, Loicano said.
A coalition of immigrants’ rights organizations filed a complaint on May 17 with the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Inspector General describing the outbreak at Adams as an “emerging public health catastrophe.”
Active COVID-19 cases reported at the facility have jumped from four on March 12 to more than 400 by May 23, according to the complaint and ICE data. Epidemiologists with the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed that 437 cases as of May 25 have been attributed to Adams County Correctional Center. The numbers are reported to health authorities by the facility, according to Mississippi State Health Department spokesperson Liz Sharlot.
Immigration attorneys claim the rapid spike in cases is linked to unsafe conditions that have put detainees at high risk of infection. Detainees have reported inconsistent access to soap and disinfecting supplies for the dormitories, inconsistent use of masks, and limited space to properly socially distance, according to interviews with former detainees and immigration attorneys.
Laura Belous, an advocacy attorney at the Arizona-based Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which provides legal services to detained immigrants in Arizona, faulted ICE and CoreCivic for not bringing the outbreak under control at immigration detention centers in Arizona, including by not systemically providing vaccines to detainees.
“The crazy thing to us is that we are now 15 months into this pandemic and we know how to control the spread of this disease and it’s not happening at La Palma and that then puts community spread higher,” Belous said. “At the end of the day, detention center health is community health because this virus spreads and can be transmitted no matter if you are a detainee there of if you’re a staff member there. So this is putting all of this at risk and this is making the pandemic last longer for all of us.”
Gilchrist, the CoreCivic spokesperson, disputed all of the allegations of unsafe conditions at its facilities.
In a written statement, she said that CoreCivic provides “ample cleaning supplies and soap at all of our facilities, including ACCC.”
Detainees are provided with handwashing soap and Environmental Protection Agency-approved sanitation supplies on a daily basis, Gilchrist said. Detainees have had access to extra disinfecting chemicals and cleaning supplies in response to COVID-19, Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist said staff members are required to wear face masks, without exception, and that all staff members and people in their care at Adams have had masks since April 2020. Detainees are required to wear masks when outside of their assigned living areas unless they are eating or drinking, she said.
Advocates said they are concerned about transfers of large groups of detainees to the Adams facility and other detention facilities, which they believe have contributed to recent spikes in COVID-19 cases across several states.
Belous at the Florence Project said several clients have been transferred recently from the La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona to the Adams facility in Mississippi.
She said the transfers may have helped spread the virus from the La Palma facility to the Adams facility.
“Our concern is that if you don’t have it under control at La Palma and you move folks around, then this virus will continue to spread wherever folks are if they are not properly quarantined or tested,” Belous said.
Gilchrist disputed this claim.
“Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners. La Palma Correctional Center has followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which have evolved over time, since the onset of the pandemic and we’re continuing to work closely with our government partners to enhance procedures as needed,” Gilchrist said.
Khurtlyn Chin, 36, who was detained at the Adams facility from October 2019 until April 2021, raised concerns about the flow of new detainees coming into the cramped dormitory he said he shared with up to 80 other men over the past year. There was little room to socially distance and mask use was inconsistent among staff members and detainees, he said.
The constant flow of new detainees was especially troubling, Chin said.
“People are getting transferred in and out, in and out and mixing in with the general population. That’s why the cases got so crazy,” he said. Chin was released from the facility in April, because of a medical condition that puts him at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
CoreCivic disputed the claim in an emailed statement and said that individuals arriving at their facilities are tested for COVID-19 during intake. Individuals who don’t test positive are separated from the rest of the population for the first 14 days at the facility, Gilchrist said.
“There is a robust communication process in place with detainees regarding test results and cohort status/protocols. Our health care providers verbally notify the detainees of their test results,” Gilchrist said.
Chin was named in the complaint, which also alleges that ICE regularly flew close to 100 immigrants at a time to the Adams facility from other facilities, detaining them in holding rooms where social distancing is impossible.
Max Myers, an immigration attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice in Jackson, questions why one of his clients was recently transferred after 20 days at Adams County Correctional Center to Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana. The client was later released from Winn after 48 hours. The 34-year-old man arrived in the U.S. with his wife from Cuba, requesting asylum at the Texas border. According to medical records he turned over to immigration authorities at the border, he has asthma, which puts him at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, Myers said.
“ICE is still in possession of his medical paperwork, but instead of directly releasing him from Adams he was transferred unnecessarily to Winn,” Myers said. “Adams County Correctional is clearly a hot spot. But now we are seeing outbreaks in other detention centers where we know there have been transfers from Adams.”
Correctional facilities and detention centers are required to limit transfers in and out of facilities to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, according to a series of guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control. Immigration attorneys say that transfers have continued throughout the pandemic, posing a risk of spread among facilities and the surrounding communities.
“There has been an alarming rate of transfers of medically vulnerable people and vague or no reason for which to justify the transfers,” said Veronica Salama, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
ICE was ordered by U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal of the Central District of California last April to consider the release of medically vulnerable detainees to limit the spread of COVID-19 and ensure their safety. Under the order, ICE was required to limit transfers to reduce the spread of the virus.
“We are seeing much of the same concerns we have had the entire time, denials to release people with several medical vulnerabilities and failure to limit transfers,” said Ben Salk, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The New Orleans’ ICE field office reported 786 active COVID-19 cases as of May 24, making up nearly 39% of all active COVID-19 cases currently reported among ICE detainees. Outbreaks of more than 50 active cases also have been reported at three Louisiana detention facilities, according to ICE data.
The spikes in cases coincide with growing concern over ICE’s lack of a national strategy for how it intends to vaccinate more than 20,000 people in its custody. The agency has not said how many detainees have been vaccinated while in its custody, leaving vaccination efforts to be coordinated by localhealth authorities in each state.
In Arizona, vaccines have been provided to detainees at two of four ICE facilities, according to Casal Singletary, the Pinal County epidemiologist.
Casal Singletary declined to say whether the two included either the La Palma or Eloy facilities.
In Louisiana, vaccines have been requested and distributed to the nine facilities currently used by ICE to house detainees, according to state health officials.
“Facilities have been provided options to receive vaccines in multiple ways, including vaccination response teams, that are available on a monthly schedule to visit each region (across Louisiana) on a rotation,” according to a spokesperson with the Louisiana Department of Health. The Louisiana National Guard is helping to administer vaccines in several ICE facilities, and state health authorities are discussing the possibility of providing vaccine education in those settings.
The Mississippi State Department of Health has distributed 800 first and second doses of the Moderna vaccine to Adams County Correctional Center and 1,100 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as of May 24. Detainees are not required to be vaccinated, so it’s not clear how many doses were used.
Sharlot, a spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department, in a written statement attributed the rise in cases at the facility to new arrivals to Adams.
“All new detainees are tested on arrival and entry into the facility. The detainees reported as new cases at this facility are testing positive on entry into the facility, indicating exposure to and infection with Covid-19 occurred outside of the facility prior to their entry into Adams County Correctional Center,” she said.
But with states reducing or entirely eliminating protections put in place to limit the spread of the virus, there is concern over the potential impact outbreaks in detention facilities could have on surrounding communities.
In Louisiana, the vast majority of detention facilities are within a three- to four-hour drive from larger cities in rural pockets of the state where vaccine hesitancy is high. Both Louisiana and Mississippi are among the 10 states with the lowest rates of vaccination in the U.S., according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker.
“We know this is going to have an impact in rural populations with low vaccination rates,” said Dr. Anjali Niyogi, an associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the Tulane School of Medicine and a volunteer for Physicians Without Borders. “Without adequate protective measures in place and the spread of new variants, what does this mean for a potential third wave and for already overburdened health facilities in those communities?”