by Cindy Knoebel

Imagine – if you can – that your diabetic husband has been incarcerated in an immigration detention facility for 18 months. Imagine suffering unbearable anxiety as the pandemic begins to surge through detention centers.

Imagine that, to your immense relief, following a confirmed case of COVID-19 at the facility, your husband is released and comes home.

And then imagine that, two weeks later, after being diagnosed with COVID-19, your husband dies.

This is a true story. It’s the story of Óscar López Acosta who died on May 10th - Mother’s Day - after being released from the Morrow County Jail in Gilead, OH on April 24th. He is the first person in ICE custody to die of the virus in Ohio.

Just five days before Acosta died, the ACLU of Ohio filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 23 individuals in ICE custody at the jail that had either tested positive for COVID-19 or have medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus. The lawsuit notes that at least 50 detained immigrants out of the Morrow's total jail population of 79 had tested positive for COVID-19.

Immigration activist Anna Babel, who visited Acosta frequently during his confinement and picked him up at Morrow on the day he was released, wrote this about the father of three on a Facebook fundraiser: “ I learned that he [Oscar] was a husband and father of three children; a diabetic; a devout Christian; and that in happier times, he grew corn and raised chickens behind his suburban house in Dayton. We talked a lot about our favorite foods and our families. He regularly attended Bible study classes and kept to himself in the jail. Oscar's faith and his love for his family helped him to survive months of seemingly endless detention. As he got to know me better, he explained that he was afraid to return to Honduras, his country of origin, because of drug-related violence.”

To say that the Morrow County Jail has a troubled past would be an understatement. Back in February, Freedom for Immigrants filed a complaint detailing fifteen separate issues at the facility, from overcrowding, to unsanitary conditions, to inadequate medical and dental services.

According to the ACLU lawsuit, no one inside the jail receives medical treatment other than Tylenol for their symptoms and adequate cleaning supplies aren’t provided. Describing conditions at the jail, the lawsuit notes, “Both of the pods in which Plaintiffs are confined are enclosed environments without windows that are capable of opening. Plaintiffs are in constant close proximity to other detainees. Detainees continue to eat meals together communally, use one shared water fountain, and are, only as of recently, provided soap. Each pod they are confined in has rows of beds that are so close together, it is possible to touch multiple beds from one’s own bed. Each pod also has just one bathroom, each with toilets and one shower room.”

As of May 15, the judge for the case has ordered the release of only fourteen people from Morrow.

One of the plaintiffs, Mohamed Abdi, who has asthma and tested positive for COVID-19, was quoted in the lawsuit as saying, “I feel like we are being set up to die.”

Abdi was right. Acosta’s death is, tragically, proof positive.

Cover photo: Óscar López Acosta with his daughter