When Tatalu Helen Dada called last Friday from the LaSalle Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, the line was muffled, but her desperation was clear.
“Everyone here, we are at risk,” she said. “You have the officers come in from the streets, they're still bringing people from the streets. So basically our life is in danger.”
Dada and about 80 other people live in a dorm where beds are 2 feet apart. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) staff rotate in and out of the facility, and immigrants continue to be brought into ICE detention centers or moved between them. Dada fears they’re continuing to spread a virus that’s already infected three people at LaSalle.
She’s one of 16 immigrants in six Louisiana detention centers who are suing ICE and the wardens of their facilities, saying poor health puts them at grave risk if they’re exposed to the coronavirus — and that keeping them locked up violates their constitutional right to safety in government custody.
Dada suffers from Grave’s Disease, which causes hypothyroidism. She also has hypertension, asthma, malnutrition and vision loss, the lawsuit states.
It’s one of a slew of cases brought by detainees with health conditions that make them particularly at risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 since the pandemic began — some of which have led to people being released. All detail harsh criticisms of ICE’s response to the pandemic.
At LaSalle, where Dada is being held, she said they recently went without soap for six days.
“We talk about this virus where everybody's saying oh, ‘Wash your hands,’” she said. “There's no soap. People don't even have the money to buy soap from the commissary. What are they supposed to do?”
Detainees are cleaning their own dorms using solutions they’ve made from laundry cleaning supplies, Dada said. According to the lawsuit, some guards and staff don't wear masks or gloves, and hand sanitizer is banned. A group of women at LaSalle were pepper-sprayed last month after a confrontation between guards and detainees over fears of the coronavirus, and Dada said some remain in isolation.
Coronavirus-inspired hunger strikes have popped up at facilities across the U.S., including at least two in Louisiana. Some facility isolation units housing those who’ve tested positive share air vents with the rest of the facility, raising the possibility the virus could still spread, the lawsuit claims.
On Thursday, ICE said 287 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 — more than double the number who’d tested positive early last Friday. In one facility in Richmond, Louisiana, the number rose from three to 28 in under a week.
Immigrants rights advocates argue those numbers are likely vast undercounts. The New York Times has reported that dozens of Guatemalans deported by ICE since late March have since tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Guatemalan authorities. ICE told Congress that as of Friday only 400 of the roughly 32,000 people in custody had been tested.
“It's really scratching the surface of what's actually happening on the ground, which is that thousands of people need to be tested, especially folks that are moved from one detention facility to the next,” said Aya Saed, one of Dada’s lawyers and a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
The Center is seeking similar challenges in Mississippi and Alabama. In one case since the pandemic’s outbreak, Saed said, a woman detained in Mississippi made her own mask out of a T-shirt and rope she found in the facility’s laundromat.
“And ICE officials told her to take off the mask, that there's no coronavirus in detention facilities and therefore there's no need for her to wear a mask.”
Among the other detainees in the Louisiana lawsuit is a 78-year-old Mexican woman with diabetes and hypertension; a 59-year-old Iranian man with a chronic lung condition, hypertension and Grade 2 fatty liver disease; a 34-year-old Cuban man with hypertension and diabetes; and a 59-year-old Mexcian woman with diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and vision loss.
On Monday, a federal judge in California ordered ICE to “identify and track” all ICE detainees with risk factors that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. The judge found ICE has not been ordering facilities to care differently for those medically vulnerable to the virus, that ICE’s COVID-19 guidance for its facilities deviated in places from recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that the guidelines are not mandatory nor has ICE been enforcing them. He summed up ICE’s response to the pandemic as “callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing” of detainees.
The ruling is part of a class-action lawsuit brought by immigrants-rights groups, including the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, originally brought in 2019 over ICE’s medical treatment of detainees.
“Their failure to monitor and oversight is something that has been true, particularly in the provision of medical care, for years,” said Tim Fox, the Center’s co-executive director.
Crucially, the ruling also orders ICE to make prompt decisions on who to release, something that could dramatically increase the number of people freed from detention. Last week, ICE announced it has released 700 detainees during the pandemic.
The order could give thousands of detainees without lawyers a chance at being released. Fox added that if comprehensive testing is not part of ICE’s revised COVID-19 standards ordered by the judge, “we'll go right back to court.”
Spokesmen for both ICE and GEO Group, which operates the LaSalle facility, rejected what they called unsubstantiated rumors and unfounded allegations. Both said claims of a lack of cleaning supplies were false, and Geo Group said its LaSalle facility has isolation rooms suited to contain airborne infections. It called allegations against the company the result of “outside groups with political agendas.”
The LaSalle facility sits down a backroad outside of the town of Jena, where people aren’t particularly worried about a detention center coronavirus outbreak, said Craig Franklin the assistant editor of The Jena Times newspaper.
“That facility is probably the last thing on everybody's mind around here, unless somebody happens to work out there,” he said. “The average person in Jena, Louisiana, they're more worried about their beauty shopping opening than they are about that facility spreading coronavirus.”
Franklin knows people who work at the detention center. He said staff are being given masks and gloves and being protected as much as they can be.
“There have been no major concerns that they've expressed. No one's fearful, no one's upset about anything as far as I know,” he said. “More people are more concerned about catching the coronavirus at our Walmart than they are about the ICE facility.”
In recent weeks, Dada has twice seen a nurse after having trouble breathing and a fever, she said. If she were released, she’d live with her sister in Ruston, Louisiana, where her daughter’s been living during the last year and half she’s been detained. But she fears even her lawsuit won’t help free her.
“I would say it will take the grace of God,” she said.
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