The CDC says coronavirus “does not spread easily” by touching surfaces or objects. But it’s still ‘possible.’
ANSON, Texas – Bluebonnet Detention Centers in rural West Texas sit empty for years until local officials print lucrative agreements before Christmas with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to start accommodating immigration detainees here.
Now, just five months after opening, the facility, which is run by a private non-profit contractor, is home to one of the largest corona virus outbreaks in immigration detention centers in the country.
On May 22, 111 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19. That’s more than a quarter of the immigrants detained there, and the second highest number of infections among the country’s 49 immigration detention centers where detainees have tested positive for the virus.
Only the larger Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego – where 57-year-old immigrants from El Salvador died on May 6 while being treated for coronavirus complications in hospital – had a higher number of positive cases: 155 on May 22.
The death of Salvador’s immigrants marks the first death of an immigrant who was arrested for COVID-19. Death adds fuel to criticism that ICE has failed to adequately prevent and mitigate disease in immigration detention centers.
“What we are seeing is the number of prisoners who tested positive in Texas and across the country exploded,” said Carrie O’Connor, a legal partner with the non-profit Texas Civil Rights Project. “The government has been slow to respond to them. The slow road is illegal and it endangers everyone. “
More than 50 lawsuits have been filed by advocacy groups demanding that ICE release prisoners with medical conditions that put them at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of a virus.
On May 19, US Senator Tom Udall, D-N.M., Announced that the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security had launched an investigation into ICE handling of a coronavirus pandemic inside an immigration detention facility.
“There is a long history of disease outbreaks in detention facilities and this is the first step towards ensuring that there are adequate policies and practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention,” Udall said in a statement.
The inspection of the inspector general was launched in response to a letter from Udall and 25 other Democratic senators who raised concerns about reports that the immigration detention center was not making adequate efforts to prevent and reduce the spread of COVID-19, including not providing adequate soap and hygiene. products for prisoners; not providing protective equipment to staff and detainees, and prisoners’ inability to practice social distance.
ICE has tested 2,394 prisoners for the corona virus nationwide and there were 1,201 cases confirmed on May 22, according to data posted on the agency’s website.
Of 33 ICE detention facilities in Texas, 11 have confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“We anticipate it will increase,” O’Connor said.
The city of Texas is isolated from the COVID-19 outbreak
Anson – population 2,430 – is a rural community about 20 miles north of Abilene and about 160 miles west of Fort Worth, surrounded by cotton fields and cattle ranches. Small enough that the north-south alphabet path only goes to Q.
So far, the coronavirus outbreak in the Bluebonnet Detention Center, and the outbreak in two nearby prisons, has not spread to the city.
In addition to the Bluebonnet case, there are dozens of COVID-19 cases in two Abilene state prisons in Jones County, which includes Anson, the county seat.
But the city itself does not have more than 10 active COVID-19 cases among the population at any time, according to an update provided by the district.
“I am pretty sure that they did everything they could to protect their employees and facilities,” said Sara Alfaro, mayor and deputy sheriff Anson. “Either they do a very good job of keeping it contained or … Well, there is no alternative to that because we don’t get many cases in our community.”
O’Connor said the possibility of an outbreak in Bluebonnet was transmitted inside the facility by infected prisoners. ICE in recent weeks has continued to move immigrant detainees from one detention center to another.
“One of the surprising things is that when our lives have been closed, ICE has flown people across the country,” he said. “ICE has created this entire transmission network where they transfer people, including from places they know have positive cases.”
ICE put an empty prison to use
Bluebonnet was built a decade ago in Jones County to house state prisoners – an offer by the district to bring jobs to rural areas where about one-fifth of the population lives in poverty, according to Census Bureau data.
Regency bet and lose.
Ten days after officials broke down a $ 35 million prison in 2009, the state canceled plans to use the facility, according to Abilene Reporter-News.
The building burned down, empty, on the eastern edge of the city for years.
An agreement for a private prison contractor to purchase facilities in 2017 also failed.
“That is a painful topic,” said Tiffany Waddell, editor of the local newspaper, Western Observer. “I say that because I don’t think many people carry the facility. It should have been prison years ago.”
But when ICE increased its detention capacity last year amid a record of the arrival of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants on the Southwest border, Jones County offered its eagles. ICE agreed to a 5-year contract last August, and Bluebonnet opened before Christmas with space to accommodate around 750 immigrant prisoners.
The ICE Management and Training Corp., or MTC, contractor operates the facility. It currently holds 417 men and women, MTC said.
The facility is mostly home to men, but has a separate pod designed to accommodate up to 72 women, according to a press release posted on the ICE website announcing the opening of the facility.
Six of the 118 MTC employees have tested positive, according to MTC. All have recovered and returned to work, the company said.
The Bluebonnet facility is an example of how the Trump administration has opened immigration detention centers in rural areas across the country to hold more immigrants, said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties National Civil Prison Project.
A study released by the ACLU in April shows how the Trump administration has turned to private, non-profit contractors to convert former prisons such as Bluebonnet to immigration detention facilities, which have allowed private nonprofit contractors to sustain income loss due to a decline in prison populations in Texas and other states , he said.
MTC has a track record of providing inadequate living conditions and medical care to prisoners at company facilities, he said.
“The facilities run by MTC are well known for the bad conditions in which they live,” Cho said. “It’s too easy for these private prison companies to take shortcuts and the impact is what we see here, which is the mass spread of COVID-19.”
“This accusation is wrong,” MTC spokeswoman Issa Arnita said in a statement via email. “The MTC medical team is accredited by the National Penitentiary Health Care Commission, the American Penitentiary Association, and the Joint Commission. Our services are accredited by this national organization because they meet national care standards. Our doctors, nurses, dentists and health care professionals are dedicated to serving the needs of men and women in our care – and they do an excellent job. “
The ACLU and partner organizations have filed more than 50 lawsuits asking ICE to release prisoners with medical conditions that increase the risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of a virus, Cho said.
ICE has released more than 400 prisoners in various facilities in several states as a result of the lawsuits, he said.
He noted immigration detainees detained for violations of civil immigration and barriers to their release along with the COVID-19 outbreak were “recipes for disaster.”
“Unless ICE starts releasing people faster, there will be more deaths and that death will be in ICE’s hands,” he said.
‘Fear is there’
ICE officials refused to answer specific questions about the COVID-19 outbreak on Bluebonnet.
In contrast, ICE officials gave a written statement that said the health and safety of prisoners in ICE detention was one of the agency’s “highest priorities”.
The agency has taken several steps to protect prisoners, staff and contractors in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, including reducing the number of detainees in detention by placing immigrants as an alternative detention program, delaying social visits and combining social distance practices with stumbling food. and leisure time, the statement said.
Newly arrived prisoners were isolated for 14 days before being placed in the general population. Detainees are being monitored and tested for COVID-19 in line with CDC guidelines and in conjunction with recommendations from state and local health officials, the statement said.
Following a review of 34,000 prisoners due to a higher risk of serious illness due to COVID-19, the agency has freed more than 900 prisoners, the statement said, although the ACLU said at least 400 released prisoners were due to lawsuits.
The total number of immigrants detained by ICE has decreased by 10,000 from 29 February to 2 May, the statement said.
Cho at the ACLU said that while the percentage of people detained by ICE has decreased, detainees still cannot practice social distance with a distance of at least six feet, as recommended by the CDC.
“That means that people no longer sleep apart from each other; it might mean they sleep four feet from each other. This might mean that eight people don’t congregate at the same table, it might mean that four people are clustered at the same table when they eat, “Cho said.” Percentages have no measurable impact in terms of actual conditions of detention and the ability of people to avoid transmission of the virus. “
In Anson, some residents were suspicious of those working close to people infected with COVID, said Waddell. That includes medical professionals and people who work at Bluebonnet.
“I think that fear is there,” said Waddell. “Having a detention facility doesn’t really help.”
Arnita, a spokesman for MTC, said staff who tested positive for COVID-19 could not return to work until they met the CDC requirements for health care providers to ensure they no longer had the virus.
This facility traces contacts based on CDC guidelines to determine whether the staff has long close contact with staff and detainees. Based on these findings, detainees could be quarantined, and staff were told not to return to work and to stay away at home to ensure they were not infected.
The area, where infected staff members work, was also thoroughly disinfected, he said.
Laura Gutschke from Abilene Reporter-News contributed to this report.
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