ICE Dodged Orders to Free Detainees—and Triggered an Outbreak

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

At the end of April, Florida federal Judge Marcia Cooke ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons were such a tinderbox for the novel coronavirus that ICE had to begin efforts at letting people out. The dangers of the pandemic inside three immigrant-detention centers in the state threatened to put ICE on the wrong side of constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment.

Thousands of miles away, in Arizona, several lawsuits on behalf of people detained by ICE were in various stages of advancement. One, brought in April by the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, sought to release at least eight people at risk of contracting COVID-19 into sponsor custody. 

But instead of preparing to release migrants in detention, ICE did something both the Centers for Disease Control and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons had warned against. They transferred 74 detainees to a for-profit prison in central Virginia called ICA Farmville. 

Both medical staff and already-overtaxed employees at ICA Farmville, according to court documents and interviews, had warned ICE against taking in new detainees. ICE had even assured Farmville staff it would use a different Virginia prison as a way-station to quarantine people should transfers have to go through.

Instead, in early June, ICE sent the 74 people—from Arizona’s Florence and Eloy detention centers and Florida’s Krome—directly to ICA Farmville. Staff fears manifested almost immediately. Fifty-one detainees tested positive for COVID-19. 

A month later, ICA Farmville is in crisis. It has at least 268 out of around 360 detained people positive for the virus, making the jail by far the most stricken facility in ICE’s network of lockups. While ICA Farmville is claiming that vanishingly few are symptomatic, detainees, backed by medical records seen by The Daily Beast, say in dire terms that isn’t true. 

“We think we’re going to die at any time. The help we need we’re not getting,” said a man detained at ICA Farmville whom The Daily Beast will call Michael. “We think we’re going to die without seeing our families. A lot of people here are suffering.” 

Former employees say the coronavirus has exposed longstanding failings at ICA Farmville—namely, a company that values making money over protecting either detainees or its staff. At least 22 guards have contracted the coronavirus; others have responded to desperate, panicked and agitated detainees with at least three incidents of violence between June 20 and July 1. “There was no reason to intake any more detainees,” one former employee said, “but it’s all about profit.” 

To immigration attorneys and advocates, the cause of the disaster unfolding at ICA Farmville is clear: ICE’s decision to transfer detainees into the facility rather than releasing them in accordance with current and likely future judicial rulings. 

ICE is “shifting people around to avoid having to let people out, through being forced in lawsuits,” said Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

“In my opinion, to avoid releases, they’re shifting people around the country or moving them to other detention facilities outside of south Florida,” said Heriberto Hernandez, a Florida immigration attorney who had a client at Krome in Miami, one of the jails cited in Judge Cooke’s ruling, moved into ICA Farmville. 

Hernandez said his client at Farmville has tested positive for COVID-19 and “all they did was give him cold medicine.”

“There’s no question whatsoever that this [transfer] was the result of the lawsuits,” said Marc Van Der Hout, an Arizona attorney who sued ICE to release a husband and wife from the “tremendous outbreak” at the Eloy detention center. “There are four lawsuits I’m personally aware of, and possibly more. There’s no doubt in my mind they were doing this to avoid the repercussions of the lawsuits.” 

ICE denies conducting any legal shell game over the detainees, and says its motivations were about the health of the detainees. 

“All detainee transfers and transfer determinations are based on a thorough and systematic review of the most current information available. As such, ICE takes into account important factors prior to the transfer, including the detention center and the health, safety, and welfare of the detainee, when determining if a transfer is appropriate,” an ICE spokesperson said.  

ICA Farmville Director Jeffrey Crawford wrote in a July 9 court declaration that his medical staff, as early as April, expressed concern about “further intakes” into Farmville. He passed it to ICE to “explore… eliminat[ing]” additional detainee arrivals. ICE and ICA Farmville reached a deal to place new detainees first in single-cell quarantine for two weeks at a Caroline County facility. 

But instead, ICE cited what Crawford cryptically called “an operational need” to place the 74 detainees from Eloy, Krome and Florence at ICA Farmville directly. An ICE spokesperson suggested the need was about “protect[ing] detainees in its custody and promot[ing] social distancing whenever possible” as the “operational need” at issue. ICE, asked by The Daily Beast, did not address Crawford’s account of hearing from ICE that the Arizona and Florida prisons had marginal cases of Coronavirus inside. 

According to Crawford’s recent court declaration, ICE suggested the transfer to Farmville would be safe, claiming that “there were no active COVID-19 cases at the Arizona facility and that there were very few cases at the Florida facility.” 

But before the transfers happened, public reporting had documented alarming spikes in coronavirus within the prisons’ walls. On May 19, the Miami Herald reported that coronavirus had “skyrocket[ed]” at a Broward County ICE detention center after dozens of people held at Krome were transferred there. By May 8, the Tucson Daily Star reported at least one ICE guard at Eloy had tested positive for COVID, as had another at Florence; two weeks after the transfer, documented cases of COVID-19 amongst Eloy detainees shot up.   

Still, Crawford noted in his declaration that ICA Farmville had “the right to refuse transfer of anyone whose needs cannot be accommodated at our facility.” But he did not exercise that right. Crawford did not respond to a detailed query and request for comment, though a contract spokesperson, Robert Brown, did. 

According to a former ICA Farmville employee, it was not only medical staff who raised alarms about the unsuitability of Farmville, a smaller facility than many other ICE prisons to host additional detainees during the pandemic. La Palma in Arizona has over 3,000 beds; ex-employees described a high of perhaps 700 at ICA Farmville. 

“It’s an open dormitory detention center with bunks lined up next to each other with narrow aisles,” the ex-employee said. Early in the pandemic, “many officers vocalized that if intake didn’t stop immediately and the facility didn’t effectively shut down and shutter up, COVID would hit the facility just as bad as it has.”  

The ex-employee continued: “Farmville is not set up in a manner in which social distancing could feasibly work.”

Both former ICA Farmville employees who spoke with The Daily Beast described an administrative staff more concerned with making money than with the health and lives of its detainees and its workers. According to documents obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center, ICA Farmville in 2019 received $120.75 per detainee per day from ICE

According to Crawford’s declaration, at least 22 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of July 8. It’s compounded an existing sense of frustration and low staff morale about subpar treatment, protection and pay. The ex-employees said there have been no raises in almost six years, with forced overtime serving as a meager substitute, and fewer days off, resulting in an overworked and disgruntled staff. Meanwhile, the ex-employees said, management have been awarding themselves annual raises. 

Wages, one of the ex-employees said, are higher than most jobs in the surrounding area. But there is no union at ICA Farmville, something the former employees said was discouraged by management, prompting fears of retaliation that have dissuaded organizing efforts. 

Brown, the spokesperson for ICA Farmville, said the company gave “every employee a 25 percent bonus in the last pay period to thank them for their contributions to the company and mission in light of this pandemic situation.” They had not received an hourly wage increase since 2015, “but benefit dollars have increased almost annually.” 

He said management and administrative staff “received an increase this year for the first time in five years,” but totaled it at “about 1.3 percent per year.” 

Frustrations amongst guards, the ex-employees said, have likely contributed to an alarming spate of recent violence inside ICA Farmville, with two pepper sprayings and an alleged noise round fired between June 20 and July 1. The ex-employees—whose accounts were consistent with five detained migrants The Daily Beast has interviewed—described a mixed picture amongst guards, with sympathetic ones mixed in with aggressive and burned-out ones. 

The pepper sprayings “exacerbate respiratory problems” amongst detainees, noted Sirine Shebaya, the executive director of the National Immigration Project at the National Lawyers’ Guild. “It illustrates the degree to which the facility was ill-equipped to handle an outbreak. ICE knew that, the facility knew that, but they continued to operate as if there wasn’t a lethal pandemic of proportions we haven’t seen since 1918. And that’s exactly what caused this outbreak.” 

At the same time, ICA Farmville has its defenders. Eileen Blessinger, an attorney who represents clients locked inside, said Farmville is amongst the best ICE prisons for facilitating legal access. “I don’t think [the outbreak] can be 100 percent attributed to Farmville,” Blessinger said. “If the federal government made the decision to pause all transfers from the Bureau of Prisons, why was it OK [for ICE] to transfer immigrants?” 

The spokesperson for ICA Farmville, Brown, told The Daily Beast that profit did not motivate ICA Farmville’s acceptance of the transferred detainees. But several of Brown’s comments to The Daily Beast were disputed by people detained at ICA Farmville. 

Asked about the possibility of social distance inside the facility, Brown said that ICA Farmville is currently at half its capacity. “Even when at full capacity, detainees have an average of 33 sq. ft of unencumbered space each in the dormitories. When you factor in furniture and fixtures, they average about 50 sq. ft per detainee,” he said. 

A detainee The Daily Beast will call Freddy said that was misleading. “No, we’re sleeping like we’re partners. The beds are basically attached to each other. The space here is small,” Freddy said. 

Brown said that while a large volume of people at ICA Farmville had tested positive for COVID-19, “99.87 percent of positive detainees are asymptomatic. We remain committed to the health and safety of those working for us and in our care.”

“No, that’s a lie. Here, everyone has symptoms,” Freddy said. 

Michael added: “We’re waiting for death to come for us because we’re all affected by coronavirus and all these people are worried and scared. The majority of us have children. We’re having chronic mental health issues. I want ICE to think with their hearts. All of us are suffering psychologically too.”

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