An ongoing quarantine in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in South Florida has raised serious questions about the agency's preparedness for an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Several immigrants are being held in a special ward at the Glades County Detention Center and have been barred from receiving visitors and eating with other detainees. Last week, an undetermined number of quarantined detainees with "flu-like symptoms" were allegedly moved from the facility to a hospital to undergo testing for COVID-19, according to an attorney familiar with the situation.
Heriberto Hernandez, an immigration lawyer in Palm Beach County, represents Isaac Santos-Mojica, one of the quarantined detainees who has been providing updates from within the detention center. Santos-Mojica, originally from El Salvador, was placed under quarantine more than a week ago and says he has no idea when it will end.
Hernandez learned of the quarantine March 2 after driving two hours from his office to the Glades County Detention Center, which is in a remote area west of Lake Okeechobee. There he was informed by a jail official that Santos-Mojica was being held in the facility's medical ward and would not be allowed to receive visitors. Hernandez, who had hoped to prepare for his client's upcoming immigration court hearing, pressed for more information. Jail officials eventually confirmed Santos-Mojica had been quarantined for "flu-like symptoms" but did not offer any other details, Hernandez says. He spoke with his client over the phone later that evening but has not heard from him since.
According to Hernandez, Santos-Mojica called family members Friday to give them a grim update: Several detainees had become severely sick and were waiting to be transferred to a hospital for coronavirus testing. The weekend passed with no further dispatches from Santos-Mojica. Finally, Hernandez received confirmation from the Glades County Sheriff's Office earlier this morning that his client is still under quarantine at the facility; however, no mention was made of coronavirus or detainees being transferred to a hospital for testing.
"Detainees are essentially held hostage to any disease that might be spreading around the facility," says Hernandez, who also represents another detainee at Glades. "I've stopped shaking hands with my clients, unfortunately. I don't want to take any risks, especially now."
Santos-Mojica didn't tell Hernandez exactly how long the quarantine had been in effect, but reports that New Times received suggest it began as early as February 26 — nearly two weeks ago.
Glades County Detention Center is one of nearly 100 local and county jails that have an intergovernmental service agreement with ICE. Under this agreement, Glades County houses ICE detainees in its facilities in exchange for payments from the agency.
Asked about the quarantine, several employees with the Glades County Sheriff's Office referred New Times to Maj. Keith Henson, identified as the chief of correctional operations. Henson did not respond to calls or emails.
The international spread of coronavirus has caught the United States painfully unprepared and created a crisis of transparency for President Donald Trump's administration. The federal government has been as slow in its response to the outbreak as it has been cagey — it's still unclear how many people have been tested for the virus because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is no longer releasing those figures.
ICE appears to be following suit: The agency has left attorneys, advocates, and more than 50,000 detainees in the dark about what protocols, if any, it has adopted in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Last month, after an ICE detainee was admitted to a hospital in California for coronavirus testing, ICE said in a statement to local news outlets that it was screening all detainees within 24 hours of their arrival at detention facilities. The agency did not mention how it would screen immigrants or whether immigrants were being tested for COVID-19, nor did it say how any detainee sick with the virus might be treated.
ICE did not respond to multiple requests from New Times seeking comment and further information. Other news outlets, including the Miami Herald, have also had trouble getting a response from the agency.
According to Steadman Stahl, president of the Miami-Dade County chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, officers working at Glades have been issued gloves and masks to wear around detainees; they've also been urged to wash their hands frequently. The Police Benevolent Association represents corrections officers working in immigration detention centers throughout Florida.
"We're concerned any time there's going to be a possible outbreak of any disease," Stahl says. "But the operation of these facilities has to continue moving forward."
Stahl says corrections officers have been instructed to look for coronavirus symptoms: cough, fever, body aches, and fatigue. The problem is that those are also symptoms of the flu.
"Without testing, no one at these facilities can know for certain if someone has coronavirus," Miami immigration attorney Joseph Lackey says. "Everyone is in the dark as to what's really going on inside Glades."
Lackey, who frequently visits Glades for work, heard about the quarantine from a former client currently inside the facility. He says other detainees have begun to ask questions about the quarantine and their own safety.
"This is different from past quarantines. I had a client who was quarantined in Glades for chickenpox a while ago. [Jail officials] had no problem telling me all about it back then — they even estimated when my client would be out of quarantine," Lackey tells New Times. "Now they're not saying [anything]."
Advocates and attorneys say they are troubled by ICE's record with handling infectious diseases. In recent years, ICE facilities across the nation have experienced outbreaks of measles, mumps, and chickenpox.
"We are seriously concerned about what coronavirus could mean for detained immigrants," says Bud Conlin, president of Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees. "Historically, overcrowding in detention centers with a lack of hygiene supplies and medical oversight... has provided a breeding ground for outbreaks."
Conlin and his organization are calling for routine public health inspections of detention facilities such as Glades.
The Glades County Detention Center came close to being shuttered in 2014 owing to a lack of inmates but has seen a stunning turnaround under the Trump administration. In the past few years, Glades has housed as many as 690 detainees at once. Detainees allege they've been pepper-sprayed, beaten, and refused medical treatment. Last year, a group of Somali men filed a lawsuit against the facility for religious discrimination by some of its guards.
Update: After the publication of this story, a spokesperson for ICE denied that there are any active cases of detainees with the virus.
"Currently, there are no detainees in ICE custody with confirmed COVID-19," the agency stated. "ICE continues to incorporate CDC's COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency. In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus."
However, it's worth noting that in the past, the agency has released sick detainees to avoid having them die in ICE custody, thereby evading reporting requirements.
The agency says it updated its pandemic workforce protection plan in January following the discovery of the novel coronavirus. New protective measures for employees include respirators and masks. As for detainees, the agency says it screens all new arrivals and isolates those who display enough symptoms to meet CDC requirements. The agency says that as of March 3, four detainees have met the criteria for coronavirus testing. It did not say where they were located.