by Cindy Knoebel

The news headlines have erupted with dizzying speed:

  • "Florida ICE Detainees Start Hunger Strike Over Coronavirus Concerns" (March 26, Miami New Times)
  • "Women in ICE Detention, Fearing Coronavirus, Make Video to Protest Unsafe Conditions"  (March 31, The Intercept)
  • "ICE officials conceded during their briefing for Committee staff that they have no contingency plan for coronavirus treatment if local hospitals become overwhelmed and cannot treat detainees." (April 7, House Committe on Oversight and Reform)
  • "Detainees at Otay Mesa Detention Center were offered masks, but only if they signed contracts." (April 10, San Diego Tribune)
  • "Burials are Cheaper than Deportation:  (April 14, The Intercept)

To keep track of media reports, publicly available databases and individual reporting through survey responses and FFI's National Detention Hotline*, FFI announced yesterday it will provide a new bi-weekly analysis and update on COVID-19 in ICE custody.

The information in the first report was collected between March 23 and April 14, and paints a highly distressing picture of how the deadly COVID-19 is impacting those in detention. Fearing for their lives, they've launched hunger strikes, written letters, shared videos and initiated protests. Meantime, ICE has fumbled and dissembled in its response to the virus, demonstrating an astonishing callousness and disregard toward this vulnerable population.

The report notes that ICE reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 24; as of yesterday, that number had grown to 77 and today jumped to 91. However, advocates, detained persons and legal services providers express serious concerns about apparent lags and gaps in ICE's reporting, suggesting the number could be much higher. As the number of impacted people has grown, so have distressing accounts from inside detention centers on how ICE and individual facilities are responding.  

  • On April 3, an advocate reported that officials at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, AZ had not informed immigrants in custody about positive cases of COVID-19 at that facility, leaving immigrants inside to learn about these cases through family members or the news.
  • According to an April 10th press report, women detained at Otay Mesa were informed that they needed to sign liability waivers as a condition of accepting free masks. According to press reports, when the women refused to sign, ICE pepper-sprayed them. Women were ultimately given the facemasks without being forced to sign an additional waiver.
  • An advocate in regular contact with family members of a person detained in Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, TX reported that facility staff gave the detained person Tylenol and Mucinex after the person reported feeling symptons consistent with COVID-19, including cough and fatigue. The detained person also has a history of cardiovascular disease and uses an an inhaler. Despite the person's clear medical vulnerability to COVID-19, ICE has not granted early release or transferred the individual to a hospital.

In addition, the report provides details on incidents of hunger strikes and the use of excess force (including pepper spraying, physical violence and retaliatory use of solitary confinement) against those in ICE custody. Numerous complaints from people in detention regarding the lack of access to essential supplies including soap, hygiene products and medicine have also been documented.

These are just a few examples of ICE's response to COVID-19. More detailed information about specific facilities can be found on FFI's interactive detention map, which is updated daily.

FFI continues to call on ICE to use all existing mechanisms at its disposal to release all those in custody, including releases on recognizance, parole, and into community-based post-release support programs.

*Launched on April 2nd, FFI's COVID-19 hotline is (209) 757-3733

Cover image from video released by women held at a Louisiana detention center.