Jose Hernandez Perez, a 36-year-old from Honduras, had been living at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in central Louisiana for about three months when people in his dorm of about 40 started getting sick in mid-July.
Perez developed chest pain and headaches. He was examined by a doctor who said he had high blood pressure.
“There were a lot of people coughing,” he remembered. “They had pain, they were lying on the bed.”
Some who complained of feeling sick and who worked in the detention center’s kitchen didn’t want to be tested for COVID-19, Perez said, for fear they’d be taken out of a role that paid a little money for spending in the facility’s commissary.
In a rare move for a facility under the purview of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, staff ended up testing not just those with symptoms, or even everyone in Perez’s dorm, but the entire facility of over 300 people, according to ICE officials. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, ICE has typically only required the testing of those with symptoms, despite the growing awareness that asymptomatic carriers can account for 40 percent of those with the disease.
Between July 19 and July 20, the number of recorded ongoing cases of COVID-19 at Pine Prairie jumped from just two to 32. Perez was among the positive.
Homero López said he started getting calls on a Sunday night after staff told detainees that they’d contracted COVID-19, five days from when detainees said they were tested and then locked down in their dorm. López is an immigration lawyer with clients at Pine Prairie who’s also helping Perez find representation in applying for parole.
He believes the true incidence of the disease at the facility could be much higher. As they waited days for test results, Perez and others were kept in their dorms — meaning those that were sick could potentially still spread the virus to whoever hadn’t yet been infected, López said.
The outbreak is far from the first at ICE facilities; others have hit Texas, Arizona and Virginia. COVID-19 has spread quickly in the tightly packed quarters of detention centers where advocates and detainees say social distancing is impossible and safety supplies are scarce. More than 4,000 detainees across the U.S. have tested positive. ICE has recorded three detainee deaths.
There have been lawsuits calling for the most at risk to be released, including 16 immigrants held in Louisiana facilities — a move that some public health experts said could prevent major outbreaks. Officials say ICE’s number of detainees has dwindled by 40 percent since March to roughly 21,500. That was aided by the deportation of thousands of immigrants, including those with COVID-19, according to an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project.
Yet despite the dramatic decline in detainees, COVID-19 is still spreading in detention centers. And as the pandemic enters its sixth month, the allegations of Pine Prairie’s outbreak this summer show an agency still floundering to enforce even the most basic safety precautions.
“I fear for my life in this place”
The Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center consists of long, low buildings in the shape of a horseshoe, surrounded by rural land. It sits in Evangeline Parish, about three hours northwest of New Orleans, where the rate of positive coronavirus tests is nearly double the statewide average. Evangeline Parish is part of the Louisiana Department of Health’s Region 4, one of the state’s hotspots for the pandemic.
There are nine ICE detention facilities in Louisiana, most of them, like Pine Prairie, clustered in the center of the state. Pine Prairie is run by GeoGroup, a private company that employs 3,700 staff at ICE facilities and had tested less than 1,000 for COVID-19 by early July, according to George Zoley, the chairman and CEO.
About a week before the outbreak, Zoley testified before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security and applauded his company’s handling of the pandemic.
“COVID-19-specific cleaning supplies and hygiene products have been continuously available in all housing units,” Zoley told lawmakers. “All detainees and employees are supplied with masks.”
He said staff receives wellness training before each shift. ICE officials have also repeatedly defended what they describe as “extensive precautions” against COVID-19 and said the agency adheres to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But in interviews with four detainees who tested positive during the outbreak, a dramatically different picture emerges. They describe haphazard cleaning, sporadic use of protective gear, and ineffective quarantine measures, loosely enforced by guards.
Perez said he and others who tested positive were placed in group isolation cells of between seven and nine people and held for just over a week before being sent back to dorms, despite some still complaining of symptoms. During that time, a guard took his mask off around them.
“I asked him why he wasn’t wearing gloves,” Perez said. “Why he was taking off his mask when he was talking to us? He said he was sorry, as they always said.”
Francisco Saballos, who’s from Nicaragua, said he had been beaten and choked when he was arrested at a gas station in St. Charles Parish before being sent to Pine Prairie. He, too, tested positive, and he worried about complications because of his age.
“I am 55 years old and I fear for my life in this place because here we have no social distance,” Saballos said.
When he was still in insolation, guards brought him to the phone booth for a call with his lawyer and left him for an hour around people who hadn’t tested positive for COVID-19, he said.
Some detainees said guards wore masks more often in the weeks after the outbreak, but not all, and that detainees were being given a new mask once every two weeks.
Renier Acosta Hernandez, a 41-year-old from Cuba who has asthma, also tested positive for COVID-19. He developed a fever and body aches, he said, and still had some symptoms days after being returned to the dorm, without a second COVID-19 test. He was worried about ongoing exposure to the virus, that with his asthma, he could get sicker. As with others, he thought the facility and guards are not doing enough to keep him safe.
“They go in as they please. And every day they change,” Renier said, describing a rotating staff. “And they don’t care about anything. And they don’t take care of us either.”
The men describe ongoing minimal cleaning and sanitizing in the dorms, even after the outbreak. Lazaro Siberio Perez said the dorms were being mopped by detainees with only water, and that staff didn’t give them soap or chemicals to clean.
“They haven’t given us [hand] soap here for a long time,” said Siberio Perez, a 28-year-old from Cuba. “We have soap that we bought with our money at the shop inside the facility.”
Detainees are not the only ones worried about their safety in ICE’s hands. In a whistleblower account of conditions at Richwood Correction Center released the same days that ICE companies were testifying before Congress, a group of current and former detention officers outlined a scarcity of personal protective equipment, staff shortages, protocols requiring them to work while waiting for COVID-19 test results and no sick pay if they tested positive.
At Richwood, two hours north of Pine Prairie, the whistleblowers said detainees who’d tested both positive and negative for COVID-19 were being transferred together, that positive detainees were housed in the same location as those with tuberculosis, and that detainees with fevers had been deported. One officer said that for detainees set to be deported, staff had been instructed to crank the air conditioning to “freeze them out” so none would show a fever.
The known unknowns of ICE data
It’s not clear to the detainees at Pine Prairie how the virus got into the facility, but all point to either people being transferred in and out of the center, or to guards coming and going from communities with increasingly high incidents of positive COVID-19 cases.
Lara Nochomovitz lives in Jena, about an hour north of Pine Prairie, where she opens her home to newly released ICE detainees from the surrounding facilities who need somewhere to go for a night or two, or who need her help finding their way back home. Her official job is as an immigration lawyer, and she said one man who was released to her had COVID-19. Another client was transferred over the summer along with 30 to 40 people to Louisiana from Florida, after COVID-19 cases had soared in that state.
“Why would you bring people here from Florida?” she asked.
Finding the single source of an outbreak of such a widespread and contagious virus can be a long shot in most settings, but it’s particularly hampered in ICE facilities where critics say conditions are not only ideal for spreading the disease, but data collection is ideal for obscuring it.
As of Aug. 11, ICE said it counted 4,444 cases. According to a study from the Vera Institute of Justice, the true likely number of COVID-19 cases at ICE detention facilities by May 15 wasn’t 986, as ICE reported, but more likely 15,549: 15 times higher.
The estimate comes from a model published by Vera researcher in June that evaluates ICE’s reported cases of COVID-19 given what we’ve learned of the virus’s ability to spread undetected. The model begins with patient zero on March 17, one week before ICE reported its first detainee case of COVID-19 — the likely incubation period from when that first person was infected to when they tested positive.
Researches used historical information about how ICE transfers detainees and the number of people booked per day by ICE. They ran the model through 500 simulations and took the median result to show that ICE’s rate of testing for COVID-19 has amounted to a vast undercount of cases among detainees. Even the low end of the model’s simulations shows thousands more cases than have been reported by ICE.
Nina Siulc, Vera’s director of research, warned that it’s actually “a cautious estimation using the best available data.” For example, the model doesn’t include the probability of a guard passing COVID-19 to a detainee, or vice versa, she noted: It only estimates the rate of viral spread among those in custody.
“And nonetheless, we find there’s really no scenario in which what ICE is reporting to the public could be telling the true story of COVID in detention.”
Noelle Smart, one of the researchers who worked on the model, describes ICE’s online data as anything but ideal. The most obvious conclusion from Vera’s model is that ICE is performing far too few tests, she said.
But the agency also only lists the current number of people detained, not the overall total of those detained since the outbreak began. That makes calculating the rate of even the known virus within its detained population impossible. ICE also doesn’t collect data on employees of the companies it contracts to run its facilities, which means it collects zero data about ICE detention facility staff in Louisiana. It was a journalist at Mother Jones who revealed in late April that two men who worked at Richwood Correction Center had died of COVID-19.
The data also doesn’t describe when or where COVID-19-positive detainees are transferred. It doesn’t break down overall testing by facility — only the number of positive tests. And it doesn’t reveal new tests over time, making it hard to spot an outbreak of the virus, unless, as Vera does, you scrape ICE’s data periodically throughout the day.
Graphs using that information provided by Vera show previous outbreaks at various Louisiana facilities before the virus hit Pine Prairie: at Richwood in late April and early May, at Winn Correctional Center in mid-May, and three outbreaks at Catahoula Correctional Center in mid-May, mid-June and early July.
A lack of oversight
Dr. David Holcombe wears many hats, all of them intimately related to providing health care in the mostly rural swath of central Louisiana.
Holcombe is the vice-chairman of the board of Community HealthWorx, a free clinic in Alexandria where he also volunteers. He’s what’s called a “civil surgeon,” meaning he’s approved by the U.S. government to perform medical exams on detainees and fill out immigration paperwork showing their physical health. Holcombe said he’s the only civil surgeon in central Louisiana, and for that reason, many immigrant detainees come to his clinic for their required exams.
He’s also the director for Region 6 of the Louisiana Department of Health, home to six ICE facilities, or two-thirds of the state’s total. Through his work as a civil surgeon, Holcombe is acquainted with Pine Prairie. The detention center is close enough to his community clinic that he often sees people held there. He visited Pine Prairie a few times in recent weeks to check on a client of the Southern Poverty Law Center and to complete exams needed for immigration hearings.
“I wore my PPE when I went in there, and took it off and put it in a special bag on the way out, and then used my Purell and all that,” Holcombe said. “So I mean, I took precautions just because I’m old and I don’t want to get sick and die.”
“It’s just hard to keep a congregate facility completely COVID-free,” he acknowledged.
But Holcombe said COVID-19 protocols at detention centers fall far short of the rigorous testing and cleaning of another congregate setting known for spreading the virus: nursing homes.
“You have to do universal testing of symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals if you want to get any idea of how much COVID is in that facility, plus you have to test all of the staff,” he said. “And you don’t do that just once, you do that on a regular basis.”
Nursing homes are required by the state to test all residents and employees, followed by weekly tests. (Even then, hundreds of nursing home staff have refused to be tested, according to a new report from the Associated Press.)
One detainee at an ICE facility told him that because many people didn’t want to be put in isolation, “probably 50 percent of the people declined” COVID-19 tests.
During the Pine Prairie outbreak, the region’s local hospitals were able to handle patients, he said. But there are only two major hospitals in central Louisiana, and “lately, they have maxed out with people waiting in the ER for several days for admission,” Holcombe said in a follow-up email. They’re now “running at full steam,” meaning that another significant outbreak at an ICE facility could overwhelm already stretched local health resources.
Despite being in charge of handling the coronavirus pandemic in his area, Holcombe has no power to exercise over ICE detention centers.
“Since these are federally contracted facilities, we can’t just walk into those like you would walk into a nursing home,” he told me. “And so the real problem is that their oversight, in my opinion, seems to be so lax.”
“It just seems that there’s a lot of autonomy there,” he added. “And there’s a huge financial pressure to not release people.”
Detention facilities are paid per detainee, per day, in payments that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars a day.
Holcombe has written that Louisiana needs to “constantly monitor the for-profit immigration prison industry to avoid once again becoming the incarceration capital of the U.S., a sinister designation indeed.”
He said GeoGroup has allowed local health department personnel to conduct some testing of staff. There’s not been the same cooperation with LaSalle Corrections, the other major private company running ICE facilities in Louisiana — including the Richwood center where two staff died.
“Very, very difficult to get any kind of information, cooperation, dialogue” from LaSalle’s leadership, Holcombe said. “In fact, I’ve called their medical director several times and the person has declined to return my calls.”
According to ICE data, Pine Prairie still has 33 COVID-19-positive detainees being monitored, despite those like Siberio, the 28-year-old from Cuba, being sent back to their dorms. It’s unclear whether that number represents new cases, or whether ICE simply hasn’t updated its data.
“Could you imagine? I am afraid to die here alone.”
When I spoke with the men, they’d called me collect from payphones with thin, scratchy connections, and waited in line to tell me their stories, one by one, over the course of a morning and with the aid of a translator. Before we hung up, I asked Siberio, the last to call me, about his greatest fear.
“Well, we don’t have medical attention, I’m afraid of that,” he said. “Could you imagine? I’m the only son and my mom is in Cuba, and I am afraid to die here alone. That’s what worries me the most.”
Despite their difficulties, Louisiana has proven that it can eliminate COVID-19 from congregate settings, given the right tools.
“You need to do regular testing of staff, mandatory testing, and you will get a handle on it,” Holcombe said. “We’ve shown it with nursing homes, so why should we treat the prisoner population with any less rigor and effectiveness then we treat nursing home patients?”
He wondered, do we consider them less important? “You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.” But he felt the situation could be summed up by a Latin idiom: res ipsa loquitur. It means: “The thing speaks for itself.”
Luis Rodrigálvarez acted as translator for the interviews for this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Francisco Saballos‘ last name.