David John has been on hunger strike for over a month. A longtime New York resident who has been incarcerated for two years while fighting deportation at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center, John contracted COVID-19 twice during outbreaks at the immigration jail, where 63 percent of the population reportedly tested positive earlier this year. John said jail officials failed to take necessary precautions and decrease the population to make room for any semblance of social distancing until news of an initial outbreak went public.
“Wearing a mask doesn’t help,” John said in an interview. “We’re confined 24/7, so we all breathe in the same air, regardless.”
In March, a federal judge ordered the federal detention center near Buffalo, New York, to make a plan for providing COVID vaccines after civil rights groups filed suit. John said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was made available, but almost everyone he has spoken to in the center doesn’t want the shot. He said there is some concern about the vaccine’s safety, but also, people are worried that “the way that it’s being administered is not trustworthy.” Besides, like him, so many have already contracted the virus.
John, who is Black and has lived in the U.S. for 22 years, is far from alone. Immigrants and their advocates across the country say abuse, inhumane conditions and a botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its private prison contractors has fueled hesitancy about receiving COVID vaccines and deep mistrust among incarcerated immigrants, complicating already delayed efforts to vaccinate people who are at high risk of contracting the virus while caged in close quarters.
The handling of the pandemic within ICE “detention centers” — which operate as jails for immigrants facing deportation — is a well-documented disaster. Despite legal efforts to release people and make room for some semblance of social distancing, COVID outbreaks have overwhelmed immigration jails and prisons across the country. Average monthly infection rates among people detained by ICE were 13 times higher than the general U.S. population during the first five months of the pandemic and have remained high throughout its duration.
Hunger strikes and protests against dismal conditions, medical neglect and lack of PPE have erupted during COVID outbreaks inside immigration jails nationwide. At multiple facilities, guards retaliated with pepper spray and other crowd control weapons and placed protesters in solitary confinement. It’s unsurprising that many incarcerated immigrants do not trust their jailers, who are now their only source of vaccinations.
Lack of Uniform Federal Plan Causes Vaccine Delays
The Biden administration has said that undocumented people are eligible for vaccines, and there will be no immigration enforcement near vaccine distribution sites outside out of immigration jails. However, unlike the federal prison system, there is no uniform plan at the federal level to provide vaccines directly to people caged in the nation’s vast network of immigration prisons, border holding pens and local jails that contract with ICE, according to reports and immigration advocates. Instead, ICE is relying on state and local public health departments to provide vaccines doses, creating confusion and delaying the vaccine rollout.
“It’s three months into this presidency and what we see is that there has been no comprehensive plan at all for vaccine rollout across the board,” said Sofia Casini, the director of visitation and advocacy strategies at Freedom for Immigrants, in an interview. “Plans for getting the vaccine to immigrants in detention have ranged from state to state and, worst of all, it has been left to the guards and staff to administer and implement vaccine rollout.”
In California, where private prison companies operate six of the state’s seven federal immigration jails, state officials initially said that they did not know who was responsible for providing vaccines to incarcerated immigrants. Worried that detained migrants and immigrants would be left out of vaccination plans, advocates pressed public health officials to include those in ICE custody in the state’s vaccine rollout plan. The California Department of Public Health finally announced that people in ICE custody were eligible for vaccines on March 15, three months after vaccines became available. Advocates hope other states will follow California’s example.
“The state government and the federal government essentially played a game of hot potato,” said Jackie Gonzalez, policy director at Immigrant Defense Advocates in California, during a recent press call.
ICE has reported more than 12,000 COVID cases and nine COVID-related deaths in immigration jails nationwide, but advocates say that is likely a vast undercount because some immigrants report being denied access to testing and others have been released just days before dying of COVID-related complications. Watchdogs say there are giant holes in ICE’s COVID data, and independent estimates show that the true scope of the pandemic inside immigration jails is much greater.
ICE did not respond to an email requesting information on efforts to provide vaccines to the agency’s immigration prisoners.
Abuse and Neglect Fuel Vaccine Fears
ICE and private prison contractors such as GEO Group and CoreCivic have told media outlets that they are following COVID protocols and providing vaccine doses as they become available. However, immigrants and advocates in multiple states told Truthout that barriers remain, and some immigrants are choosing not to be vaccinated due to a lack of medical information from trusted sources. ICE and its contractors face horrific accusations of medical neglect and physical abuse, and mistrust of jailers understandably runs deep.
At the La Palma Correctional Center in Arizona, guards put down peaceful protests demanding access to PPE and hand sanitizer last year by deploying chemical agents and firing pepper spray balls. ICE’s internal watchdog concluded that failures to enforce COVID protocols likely contributed to a massive outbreak at the La Palma facility, where federal investigators found extensive evidence of medical neglect.
Even less is known about conditions at immigration jails across the Southeast, where a network of local activist groups monitors and supports people inside remote ICE prisons and county jails that enjoy lucrative contracts with ICE to incarcerate immigrants transferred from locations across the country. That work has become more difficult during the pandemic as jailers put restrictions on visitation, according to Casini.
“What we see in places like Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi is a complete lack of information being provided to people about the vaccine,” Casini said. “They are getting almost no information inside, it is coming solely from the news, and it’s combined with distrust for medical personnel inside.”
Advocates in California point to a private prison company operating a jail for ICE in Los Angeles that recently broke federal law by misusing large amounts of a chemical disinfectant spray that made people sick.
Similar reports of toxic chemical sprays surfaced from a county jail that contracts with ICE in Glades County, Florida, where a coalition of groups filed a lengthy civil rights complaint on behalf of 25 incarcerated immigrants in February. The complaint alleges a broad range of other abuses, including medical neglect during the pandemic and throwing people in solitary confinement for organizing hunger strikes and protests.
Edwin Carmona-Cruz, the community engagement director for the California Collaborative for Immigrant justice (CCIJ), said many incarcerated immigrants have underlying health conditions and want to understand the potential side effects of vaccines before receiving them, just like anyone else. They don’t trust ICE to deliver that information.
“The lack of trust and the history of medical neglect in the facilities have people questioning whether they want to receive the vaccine from medical staff or ICE,” Carmona-Cruz said in an interview.
“It’s completely understandable that they are afraid to be getting vaccines that they know so little about from these medical professionals who have harmed them over time,” Casini said. “These are facilities where, through the work of community groups that make up our national network, we have regularly documented instances of physical and sexual abuse and medical neglect.”
Jailers Shouldn’t Be Handling Vaccine Administration, Immigrants Say
Enrique Cristobal, an immigrant detained a privately run immigration jail in McFarland, California, said some people held at the facility rejected an initial offer to be vaccinated due to a lack of educational information and “general mistrust on behalf of GEO Group and ICE.” The jail is run by GEO Group, and people held there have organized protests against poor conditions and spoiled food. When Cristobal asked a jail staffer a follow-up question about the COVID vaccine, the staffer responded aggressively with, “You ask too many questions.”
Luckily, legal advocates are now connecting people at the jail to independent health care providers who understand their culture and language.
“This information ultimately empowered individuals to change their position on whether they will take the vaccine or not,” Cristobal said in a statement translated by Carmona-Cruz.
In California, CCIJ and other groups recently launched a pilot program through existing legal clinics to provide “culturally and linguistically competent information” about vaccines at three immigration jails and “answer questions that ICE can’t,” according to Carmona-Cruz. Immigrants at the three facilities have demanded that the local health department and medical professionals that are not associated with ICE or its private prison contractors provide information in multiple languages, individual medical consultation and the vaccine shots. The pilot program is meant to show public health officials that meeting these demands is both feasible and necessary for preventing further COVID infections.
“We’re filling the gap in the meantime to demonstrate to the state that the program is feasible,” Carmona-Cruz said.
The pilot is small but could provide an example for the rest of the country. Casini said federal and state governments should be making such efforts to provide information and trusted medical advice, along with the vaccine shots themselves, to incarcerated immigrants everywhere.
“The only way to ensure that people actually feel safe and trust that they can get the vaccine, which is what we need to happen if we want to beat COVID and end this pandemic, is to ensure that it is handled by [a] third party from outside the detention system,” Casini said. “The federal and state governments should be working with local public health officials to bring the vaccine to immigrants in detention.”
Immigrants say they also need to know that getting a vaccine will not complicate their immigration case. Immigrants fear that ICE may argue that a vaccinated person should not be released while their case winds through immigration court because they are no longer at risk of getting sick or spreading COVID behind bars. They hope that the vaccine will not be used as an excuse to repopulate immigration jails, which saw their populations drop during the pandemic due to lawsuits and outbreaks.
“Some individuals believe that being vaccinated can risk their opportunity to be released,” Cristobal said. “At the same time, not receiving the vaccine puts detainees’ lives in danger for the continuous exposure of COVID-19 in detention facilities, especially given that jail staff are not required to get inoculated and can run a high-risk of introducing the virus to an already vulnerable population.”
Cristobals’s concern points to a more fundamental problem: People should not be incarcerated in immigration jails in the first place, advocates say. Casini said immigrants and activists nationwide are demanding that ICE conduct a comprehensive review of everyone in detention and prioritize them for release, especially people with preexisting medical conditions.
Casini often hears about people with conditions such as hypertension and diabetes remaining in ICE jail, along with “COVID long haulers” who remain sick for months on end. Why aren’t they being released back to their communities? Casini said profit is one motive. Local jails and private prison contractors are paid by ICE to incarcerate immigrants, and the more beds that are filled, the more money comes in.
A movement to defund ICE and shut down all immigration “detention centers” is gaining steam as the nation grapples with the damage caused by the criminal punishment system in Black and Brown communities. Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, a grassroots coalition working to abolish immigration jails, said recent high-profile police-perpetrated murders were the result of political decisions to prioritize the militarization of law enforcement over the well-being of Black and Brown people. The solution to police violence and the violence of immigration detention, Shaw said, are the same: Divest from law enforcement and invest in communities.
“We know that the mechanisms built to target, detain, and deport immigrants are rooted in, and function in collaboration with the systems of anti-Black racism and white supremacy, which have existed in the United States since before its founding,” Shaw said in a statement this week. “These are the same choices that have led to the deaths of dozens of immigrants in ICE and Customs and Border Protection custody.”
A Hunger Strike Continues
Back in New York, David John is still on hunger strike in protest of conditions at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center and his apparently indefinite detention as he waits to either be deported or released back to his home. John faces deportation to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an island nation in the Caribbean he left more than two decades ago.
John was originally arrested two years ago on a drug charge, but his immigration case is a civil matter, and he doesn’t understand why he is still in jail — especially during a deadly pandemic. He wonders why he hasn’t been given an alternative to detention and sent home on bail or with an ankle monitor. John said the jail is full of Latinx people and Black people like himself, apparently “just to keep the beds warm.” John said his jailers tell him that going on hunger strike is useless, but he continues the painful protest because it feels like his only option.
“I would like to see facilities like this come to an end, due to the fact that the treatment is just inhumane,” John said.
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