When Roberto Blanco-Gonzalez experienced the first symptoms of COVID-19, he was fearful to tell anyone. A detainee at Stewart Detention Center, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Georgia, Blanco-Gonzalez did not want to be placed in solitary confinement — the designated quarantine location for detainees like himself.
Blanco-Gonzalez’s story is all too common. ICE detention facilities like Stewart, where many immigrants from North Carolina and the surrounding areas are taken to await word on their deportations, immediately place individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 in solitary confinement. For that reason, many detainees don’t request medical attention.
Since the closing of Stewart Detention Center on March 14 due to COVID-19, the center has been essentially locked down to visitors. But according to reports coming out of the facility, conditions at Stewart and in other ICE detention facilities across the U.S. have worsened.
Three people in Stewart Detention Center have died from COVID-19, most recently on Sept. 21, when a Mexican man in his 70s who also suffered from underlying health conditions died.
Even before the pandemic, Stewart Detention Center and CoreCivic — the for-profit company that staffs Stewart and many other ICE detention facilities — received many complaints and reports of abuse, including through detainees’ testimony collected by Project South. In 2016, former Charlotte resident Pedro Salmeron, then a detainee at Stewart, told of wretched food, ice cold showers and losing 20 pounds in his first month at the facility. He was later deported to El Salvador.
Medical care has long been lacking at Stewart, as individuals with chronic diseases are given merely ibuprofen or painkillers. Typically, detainees are given a diagnosis at a nearby hospital, but once they return to Stewart, medical staff sometimes fails to follow up.
Amilcar Valencia, director of El Refugio, a ministry located a mile and a half away from Stewart Detention Center, says, “When doctors examine these folks at the regional hospitals, they say, ‘You need this [treatment], but I am not obligated to [give the treatment] until ICE signs an approval.’”
In response to our queries about its COVID-19 policies, Stewart Detention Center officials sent us their “coronavirus action plan,” which includes the following: “Having medical staff participate in the intake process to identify those who are deemed high-risk of being infected with or contracting COVID-19; isolating those who are deemed high-risk as needed; and working with local and state health departments to conduct appropriate testing.”
However, Kate Evans, director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Duke Law, which represents individual clients and conducts research for community partners, says social distancing is not possible when detainees are gathered in their pods.
Siembra NC, an organization that began as a response to President Trump’s position on immigration, supports families of those who have been detained in jails and immigration facilities. Siembra NC director Andrew Garces confirms Salmeron’s 2016 reports to his mothers, stating that even during an outbreak, detainees have not been receiving adequate food.
In 2020, the group has advocated for the release of immigrants from centers with COVID outbreaks.
“It’s definitely much more dangerous than it ever has been to be detained in these facilities,” Garces says.
Solitary confinement or cohorting?
Marty Rosenbluth, an immigrant rights lawyer who represents detainees at Stewart, says his clients “have been scared shitless of getting sick.” Although detainees aren’t supposed to be transported between facilities for safety reasons during the pandemic, Rosenbluth says many of his clients continue to be transferred, and “for no apparent reason.”
“They were taken to the medical unit and given some painkillers. No tests were given to them and no mask and no hand sanitizer,” Valencia says. Some time later, the facility distributed masks, though inconsistently.
As of Jan. 4, there had been 429 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Stewart Detention Center and three deaths due to the coronavirus. The case count is likely an undercount as many detainees, like Blanco-Gonzalez, don’t report their symptoms so as to stay out of solitary confinement.
“[Detainees will] say, ‘That’s where people die,’” Valencia says.
In an email to Queen City Nerve, CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin disputed the use of the term “solitary confinement” in describing the process used both for punishment and quarantine in ICE detention facilities, instead calling it “cohorting.”
“It would seem that detainees are using the term ‘solitary confinement’ to refer to the facility’s cohorting procedure, which is intended to prevent the spread of infection,” Gustin wrote. “Solitary confinement, whether as a term or practice, does not exist at any of the facilities we operate. During cohorting, there is no loss of privileges or activities.”
He emphasized that detainees going through the cohorting process are still allowed access to showers and telephone calls.
“We do have separate housing units that we use to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when someone is confirmed positive for the virus, but whenever someone recovers from the virus their living area is completely sanitized and cleaned before it would be used again,” he said of the unit’s sanitary conditions. “We ensure that the individuals in our care, including those in cohorts, receive the privileges that are required by ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards.”
Solitary confinement, or cohorting, is used for both punishment and isolation. In order to legally place a person in solitary confinement, there’s a review process.
A “committee will determine whether the punishment amounts to the violation or for how many days you’ll be in solitary confinement,” Valencia says, “[but] we’ve found that sometimes [the review process] doesn’t happen.”
The cells are meant for two people, but there’s only one toilet, which affords no privacy. Recreation consists of an approximately 8-by-8-foot wired cage.
A lawsuit is brought back to the forefront
A class-action lawsuit filed in August 2019 arguing that disabled detainees are discriminated against due to a lack of adequate mental and physical health care in ICE detention facilities has gained new urgency this year amid the pandemic. The lawsuit names 160 facilities run by private prison companies like CoreCivic under contract with ICE and Department of Homeland Security.
In April 2020, a judge from the Central District of California handed down a temporary injunction ordering that officials provide special care to disabled detainees due to COVID-19. In December 2020, federal immigration officials argued in court that ICE should not be under the injunction because they responded to the pandemic in a timely manner.
On Dec. 9, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Scott Stewart argued before a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel that the injunction put ICE “in a very rough place” due solely to anecdotal evidence, claiming that plaintiffs had “cherry-picked” their claims based on the bad experiences of a few detainees.
Stewart said the individual claims made in the lawsuit are not representative of ICE’s system-wide policies.
In response to Stewart’s claims, plaintiffs’ attorney Brian Goldman called the injunction “moderate” and pointed out that there is a long history of ICE failing to comply with its own policies. When pushed further by U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Bress, a Trump appointee, Goldman pointed out that the lawsuit included claims from detainees at eight different facilities in Georgia alone, including Stewart Detention Facility. The court has not yet issued a ruling on the lawsuit or injunction.
Excessive use of force
Eventually, Blanco-Gonzalez did request medical attention, but staff declined to treat him. Valencia details how Blanco-Gonzalez then “refused to leave the medical unit, and because of that, he was thrown to the floor. He hit his face on the floor. They beat him and then threw him in solitary confinement for several days.”
Blanco-Gonzalez later sent a letter to El Refugio detailing his abuse, and a disciplinary report was written by T. Lane, an officer in the facility.
In May, The Intercept published a report about a special unit — a SWAT team in the facility — that responds to peaceful protests with gas bombs, rubber bullets, beatings, and solitary confinement, reminiscent of the carceral violence against Black and brown protesters the country has seen outside of Stewart’s gates this year.
“A group of folks from Cuba, they just did a very simple thing,” Valencia says, referencing an account of a detained individual as well as a letter he received confirming it. They were each reportedly given 20 to 30 days of solitary confinement, according to reports. The offense? Placing a paper beside the bathroom door on which they wrote a message: Libertad. Freedom.
When asked about allegations of excessive force in Stewart and other ICE detention facilities, Gustin wrote, “Any use of force that took place at our facility would be appropriately documented and reviewed by our government partner [ICE].”
Stories from inside Stewart and immigration court
Blanco-Gonzalez’s eye was lacerated from the beating. Still experiencing COVID symptoms, he was provided minimal medical attention, and only for his violent injury.
“He ended up being deported,” Valencia says, as was confirmed by The Intercept in late July.
Blanco-Gonzalez was in the last stage of his case, but often, detainees’ cases are drawn out.
One of Evans’ clients at Duke Law Clinic has been detained in a center in Tacoma, Washington, for eight months.
“He’s simply waiting for a decision from an appellate Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) about whether or not he will be allowed to return to his life as a lawful permanent resident, or [if he would] be ordered [to be] removed, based on a prior criminal conviction,” Evans says.
In a past ruling, the BIA had deemed this particular detainee “not removable.” And yet he was re-detained in Washington just as COVID-19 began to spread in the United States.
“He’s just sitting around there, waiting,” Evans says.
Garces tells of a man from Winston-Salem who uses a wheelchair — a paraplegic who immigrated from Zimbabwe. He participated in hunger strikes in May, and reported to his attorneys and family members that while he was in his wheelchair, the guards at Stewart pepper-sprayed and beat him.
Another person was transferred to Stewart while taking five different daily medications for renal disease. “We got doctors to send all of that information to Stewart, and they basically ignored it,” Garces says.
This ignorance of pre-existing conditions is common in detention centers. While waiting, many incarcerated individuals have asked to be deported because the conditions inside of ICE facilities are cruel, unjust, and unlivable.
There have also been reported instances of guards forcing detainees to work more than their eight required hours in the kitchen.
One man, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was working as kitchen staff.
“He was sick. He was not feeling well. Fever, and things like that,” Valencia says. “[The guards] still forced him to go to work.” Days later, the man was found with no pulse and no breath. His death was deemed a suicide.
Like the detention centers, immigration court during COVID-19 looks much different. Rosenbluth remarks that, oftentimes, courts do not have the capacity to hold hearings by video. While he works in-person, there’s often some video aspect that holds up the process.
“The other day, I had a hearing that started an hour and a half late, because one of the other courtrooms needed to use the video feed,” he recalls. The detainee will tap into the hearing by video; the interpreter, the defendant’s attorney, and the ICE attorney will participate through telephone; and the judge will phone in while sitting in their chambers.
“It’s just a very frustrating process, because the technology just really isn’t there,” Rosenbluth says.
Furthermore, the immigration court in Charlotte has opened, Evans says, which poses major health risks for attorneys who must appear in-person. With the pandemic at peak numbers, possible witnesses cannot testify on a detainee’s behalf, and separation by video limits emotional appeal. The odds of winning a case are potentially much lower.
When looking toward the future, advocates share feelings of hope and despair.
Garces posits that the outcome of the election will play a role in future challenges to ICE and immigration policies. In the meantime, Siembra is trying to fill in the gaps. The organization launched an eviction defense hotline with the UNC School of Law, and they’ve given out over $200,000 in pandemic relief for those who are not eligible for stimulus or unemployment.
Valencia tells of a lonely job. The ministry is closed to families at the moment due to COVID, but the staff is considering opening during the day and offering meals in the coming months.
“We need to be creative and find ways to effectively support [the detainees’] release,” he says.
Rosenbluth expresses his frustration about the detention of individuals who never have and never will be flight risks or dangers to the community. “There have been no mass releases anywhere in the country, as far as I know,” he says. “I’m not very optimistic.”
Evans hopes the country will finally ask what advocates have been asking for months: Why are people being held in the face of these kinds of risks? Is immigration detention serving a purpose that we can justify in this moment?
“When certain jurisdictions are digging into this, they’re often answering that question by saying, ‘No,’” Evans says.
When Blanco-Gonzalez arrived back in his country of origin, he tested positive for coronavirus. After receiving much-needed medical attention, he was informed by his doctor that he might lose vision in his lacerated eye.
Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, who passed away in late September, was ordered to be released by a federal judge due to chronic health issues two months earlier, according to Buzzfeed News.
He became one of three detainees to die of COVID-19 while in custody at Stewart Detention Facility thus far.
Chavez-Alvarez was convicted in 1993 of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, Buzzfeed News reports. In July he’d been released from federal prison, and called his daughter, who was only 8 years old at the start of his sentence.
“Daughter, I’m leaving,” Chavez-Alvarez said excitedly. He was then transferred directly from prison to ICE custody. His daughter never heard his voice again.
For Garces, the problems will only continue until someone in the government holds ICE accountable for its action. “There seems to be less attention than ever and less accountability for the people holding the keys.”
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