Note: this article, featuring Government Accountability Project and our client, was originally published here.
Whistleblowers Say ICE Intentionally Withheld Personal Protective Equipment During COVID-19 Pandemic
Just when you think Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot get any worse, reports of their cruel tactics reach new heights. Mother Jones reports that two whistleblowers from Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana shared their experiences, including being told to lower temperatures to hide whether or not a detainee was sick prior to them being deported.
Under ICE policy, detainees with temperatures higher than 99 degrees cannot be deported, a whistleblower at the Richwood Correctional Center identified only as Smith for fear of retaliation told Mother Jones. Smith recalled an incident at an airport when the temperatures of some immigration detainees who were to be deported reached up to 103 degrees. Smith was allegedly instructed to lower the air conditioning to “freeze them out” and enable the immigrants to pass temperature checks to get on the plane.
Mother Jones spoke to Smith and another whistleblower identified as Jones after the Government Accountability Project (GAP), an organization protecting the two government employees, submitted a letter to Congress. “If anyone was to say or do anything, they knew that they were automatically putting their job in jeopardy,” Smith said, recalling other incidents of inhumane tactics used by ICE. Jones added that many colleagues did not want to speak out because working for the agency was their only source of family income.
According to Smith, Richwood’s warden would discipline Smith when detainees did not pass pre-deportation temperature checks because aborted deportations were not only expensive but required additional paperwork. Jones added that the facility wrote key terms, such as “asymptomatic” on detainee medical records to ensure those with low-grade fevers could be deported. “That was the key term,” Jones said. “It was a loophole to get these guys out of the country.”
Like many other ICE detention centers, the Richwood Correctional Center is run by a private prison company, LaSalle Corrections. Jones shared that at least 65 individuals tested positive for COVID-19 after management ignored the severity of the virus in addition to ignoring regulations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the GAP’s letter to Congress, a medical official at the facility told employees in March that the virus was similar to the flu and that if they hadn’t had the flu shot, they could not demand extra protection.
LaSalle not only intentionally failed to provide personal protective equipment to both staff and detainees, but even banned the use of such equipment for several weeks while intaking COVID-19 patients, the whistleblowers said. Jones noted that it wasn’t until after the Associated Press asked about the mask ban that some employees were able to wear masks. Detainees still lacked basic hygiene and masks.
Additionally, LaSalle mixed detainees exposed to COVID-19 with “healthy detainees and staff during transport on a regular basis,” according to the GAP. While ignoring CDC guidelines, LaSalle quarantined individuals with preexisting conditions and a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, such as those with tuberculosis, with COVID-19 patients.
Neglecting basic hygiene and ignoring CDC health guidelines wasn’t the end of it. The facility allegedly concealed information regarding infections and required some employees to work while waiting for COVID-19 test results. Those employees who were unwilling to risk COVID-19 exposure were told to use personal leave time or go without pay, the GAP stated.
As of Tuesday, ICE’s database of confirmed COVID-19 cases lists 926 active cases in custody. According to the database, 16,503 of 22,142 detainees have been tested. More than 3,700 ICE detainees are listed as having tested positive for the coronavirus, but the agency has still failed to provide the number of individuals who have been hospitalized. According to Mother Jones, the federal agency reported no active cases at Richwood for most of July, claiming that all 65 of those who tested positive either recovered or were no longer in custody. On Friday, ICE reported two cases, followed by two more on Monday. All four of those are still active. ICE has not only failed to provide the number of those hospitalized, but it continues to deceive the public in reporting its number of active cases.
Smith told Mother Jones that at least five detainees from Richmond were taken to the hospital on April 22 alone, many of whom were hospitalized for weeks without contact with family members. Smith was told not to allow detainees to use the phone because LaSalle management was worried recordings would be shared with the media. In another incident, Smith recalled being told to return a detainee, who had just been tested and found to be positive, to a dorm full of people without COVID-19 because the warden believed the test result was a “false positive.”
As Smith noted, the agency has deported immigrants with temperatures higher than 100 degrees–meaning of those deported, some may have been carrying the coronavirus. Once released from detention, immigrants who test positive are no longer considered to be in ICE custody and are therefore do not require the agency to report that case. Since the start of the pandemic ICE has deported thousands of immigrants, many of whom tested positive after arriving in their home countries, CBS News reported.
In response to the letter to Congress and allegations made by the whistleblowers, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told Mother Jones that “anonymous, unsubstantiated allegations should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.” LaSalle executive Scott Sutterfield also issued a statement to the news outlet claiming the allegations to be both “false” and “misleading,” adding that staff works to protect those in their care and that it is “very disappointing that anonymous sources would attempt to distort these hero’s [sic] efforts.”
According to The News Star, in April two Richwood guards died after testing positive for COVID-19. The guards’ families told local news outlets they wanted an investigation into the prison company’s response to the pandemic. While LaSalle issued testimony claiming to have followed measures to prevent the spread of the virus, it made no mention of deaths.
ICE facilities nationwide have shown evidence of inhumane conditions and negligence towards basic healthcare needs such as protective equipment and other hygiene products. The agency continues to perpetuate disgusting tactics to advance its xenophobic policies, such as transferring and deporting immigrants amid a pandemic, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19.