Inside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana.

Obtained by Joe Penney

Detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in Pine Prairie, Louisiana, told Business Insider they’re not getting basic supplies like masks, disinfectant, gloves, or hand sanitizer.

An attorney suspects “massive under-testing” in ICE facilities across the country. The agency has so far administered 1,030 tests to detainees, and 490 — 48% — have come back positive.

Detainees and advocates allege ICE is moving detainees around detention centers, possibly spreading the disease.

A spokesperson for the Geo Group, the for-profit company that runs Pine Prairie, denied medical neglect in the facility and claimed that “these unfounded allegations are being instigated by outside groups with politically motivated agendas.”

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Before Warah Tiben* got sick, he witnessed a Latinx man cough up blood in a neighboring dormitory before guards carried the man away.

The 25-year-old IT specialist from Cameroon has spent the last nine months detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Pine Prairie Processing Center in Louisiana.

“It’s like we are in a lion’s den here, surrounded by lions,” Tiben told Business Insider. “I’m scared I will die here.”

On April 22, he began experiencing shortness of breath and chest pain so severe it felt like a heart attack. He suspected it might be COVID-19 or a complication from the gastric ulcer that he got in Cameroon. Tiben asked to see the nurse at the facility.

The nurse told him there was nothing wrong, Tiben told Business Insider, and tried to send him away with a couple of ibuprofen pills.

“I told her that my head feels like there’s a fire in there, and my heart is beating like crazy. She told me I should calm down, it seems like I’m fine,” Tiben said in an April 23 phone interview from Pine Prairie.

When Tiben refused to take more ibuprofen, saying it was having no effect, he said the nurse tried to give him Tylenol. When he refused Tylenol, he said she relented and told him she would request a test for COVID-19.

Story continues

Tiben said they moved him to a room where suspected COVID-19 cases are quarantined for 14 days. He was alone in the room and said he spent the first three days without soap to wash his hands, had a fever at night, and coughed up blood in the morning.

Tiben said he spent five days in the room before he was transferred back to his original dormitory, still sick.

But his COVID-19 test came back negative.

Back in the dorm, fellow detainees are coughing and he is worried he still might get the coronavirus.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Pine Prairie Processing Center in Louisiana.

Google Maps

Tiben’s story of medical neglect and reluctance to test for the coronavirus despite symptoms is an increasingly common one as the disease spreads rapidly in ICE facilities across the country, according to lawsuits filed on detainees’ behalf around the country. About 48% of patients tested for in ICE facilities are positive for COVID-19.

ICE says 29,675 people are in custody in detention centers across the US. Though the numbers have slowed, ICE is still carrying out thousands of deportations a month — 17,965 in March and 2,985 in the first 11 days of April, according to ICE spokeswoman Mary G. Houtmann.

Detainees allege ICE is rationing basic hygienic products and not giving them masks

Tiben said all but one of Pine Prairie’s dormitories, which house up to 70 people, are under quarantine. Detainees cannot leave their rooms to exercise or go to the cafeteria, and meals are served in the dorm themselves. 

Though they share every surface, the detainees have not been given masks, gloves, and other basic hygienic products, like hand sanitizer, disinfectant, or wipes, according to Tiben.

Two detainees* told Business Insider that soap is rationed and given out every one to two weeks, which ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox denied.

For-profit corporations run many detention centers, including Pine Prairie, which is managed by the private prison giant Geo Group.

A spokesperson for the Geo Group denied medical neglect in the facility and told Business Insider the detention center “provides access to regular handwashing with clean water and soap in all housing areas and throughout the facility.” 

Protesters wave placards outside the GEO Aurora Processing Center to call for the release of detainees over concerns of the spread of the new coronavirus at the ICE facility on April 9, 2020, in Aurora, Colorado.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

An attorney suspects ‘massive under-testing’

“You’re going to see a loss of life” because of exposure to the coronavirus in ICE detention centers, Jeremy Jong, a Louisiana-based civil rights attorney, told Business Insider. 

Alongside colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Immigration Project, and the Loyola Law Clinic, Jong has filed lawsuits in three states to try and free detainees with underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

According to the ICE website, the agency has only carried out 1,030 coronavirus tests on detainees nationwide. Some 490, or 48%, have come back positive. Another 36 ICE employees at detention centers have tested positive, as well.

But Jong suspects the disease is much more widespread in detention facilities than what has been reported.

According to the ICE website, there only have been 20 confirmed cases at Pine Prairie, but Jong alleged that number is “the result of massive under-testing.”

Cox said ICE will carry out 2,000 coronavirus tests per month, but that those tests will be earmarked “to determine detainee health and fitness for travel”  — in other words, to clear migrants for deportation.

One Cameroonian detainee who works in the Pine Prairie kitchen* told Business Insider he saw an official list indicating there were 41 COVID-19 patients in one of the center’s dormitories.

A map showing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Pine Prairie Processing Center in Louisiana.

Google Maps

Detainees and advocates allege ICE is moving detainees around detention centers, possibly spreading the disease

On the night of Sunday, April 19, Pine Prairie health officials rushed an unconscious Haitian man to the hospital, ICE confirmed.

Though some detainees believe the man died from COVID-19, Cox said he was still alive and was sent back to his dorm after a five-hour hospital visit. 

That detainee had recently been transferred from another facility and was in a special quarantine ward for new arrivals, former detainee Chafac Nkem* told Business Insider.

Jong said Pine Prairie’s first case was from a detainee transferred in from another facility.

Tiben and Nkem said ICE continues to transfer detainees around the agency’s constellation of detention centers, even from facilities where there are confirmed coronavirus cases.

Migrants detained in an ICE detention facility in Basile, rural Louisiana, display signs related to COVID-19 in this combination of screenshots taken during a video conferencing call. The Basile facility is separate from the Pine Prairie one where the detainees in this story are being held.

Handout via REUTERS

ICE spokesman Cox alleged that “ICE is screening new detainees who arrive at facilities to identify those who meet CDC’s criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19.”

Nkem alleges the facilities are competing to maintain a high number of detainees and keep profits up during the pandemic.

“Each of those detention facilities just wants to make money, so all of them are struggling to get a good number of detainees to make money,” he said. 

Profitability also factors into courts’ resistance to release detainees on medical grounds, Nkem alleged. The Geo Group “collaborates with ICE, and I even suspect they collaborate with the court, to continue keeping people there to make their money,” he said.

The Geo Group spokesperson claimed that “these unfounded allegations are being instigated by outside groups with politically motivated agendas,” but did not say which groups or speak to specific agendas.

A guard with the GEO Group, Inc., walks past a mural of Mount Rushmore during a media tour of the ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington, on Dec. 16, 2019. The GEO Group is the private company that operates the center for the US government.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Detainees went on a hunger strike to protest conditions, and attorneys have filed dozens of petitions to get people released from custody across the country

Tiben is one of 44 Cameroonian migrants in Pine Prairie who embarked on a week-long hunger strike in mid-February to protest what they described as inhumane treatment from ICE officers. 

They also say a Louisiana judge would not hear their parole cases. 

According to Sylvie Bello, head of the Cameroon American Council, a group that advocates on behalf of Cameroonians in detention, the strikers were coerced back to eating after threats of forced feeding and deportation, as well as beatings that cost one detainee his vision in one eye. Bello has launched a fundraising campaign to advocate for more legal representation for Cameroonian detainees.

“We are scared,” Bello told Business Insider. Seventy percent of the deaths from the coronavirus in Louisiana are black people, and “we know that if we mirror the 70% death rate, that is the group that will get affected in detention, as well,” Bello said.

A letter from hunger strike… by Rebecca Harrington on Scribd

Cox disputed her allegations, and said “it would not be possible for an ICE employee to threaten a detainee with involuntary feeding as the agency has no authority to do so absent the order of a US District Court judge.”

Following the hunger strike, a group of 140 Cameroonian women protested their treatment with a sit-in at Don Hutto Residential Center, an ICE facility in Taylor, Texas.

One of the former hunger strikers at Pine Prairie, who has had hypertension for months, was part of a 16-person suit that Jong and his colleagues have filed asking for immediate release on medical grounds.  Jong is hoping the judges will release the 16 detainees.

“Most judges are finding that detention in those conditions is not lawful,” Jong said.

Since the start of the pandemic, immigration advocates have filed dozens of petitions asking for the release of detainees with health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus. 

Tiben said advocate groups often lobby for the release of Latin American detainees, but not Africans. “For Africans, we see no results. If they release 20, you will not see an African among them,” he told Business Insider.

Ruth Robertson protests at an ICE field office on March 31, 2020, in San Francisco. Activists want California Gov. Newsom and local authorities to use their emergency powers to release immigrants in California detention centers.

AP Photo/Ben Margot

‘They’re against us’

According to an ICE spokesperson, the agency has released 693 detainees “during COVID-19,” but it’s unclear how many were released following court orders.

As the Washington Post reported, the US Department of Homeland Security has been deporting detainees who tested positive for the coronavirus.

“I can confirm that CDC was on the ground in Guatemala to review and validate positive cases” of deportees, ICE spokeswoman Mary G. Houtmann told Business Insider, confirming Guatemala’s claim that ICE deported 99 coronavirus-positive patients, accounting for roughly 20% of the country’s total confirmed case load.

Detainees at Pine Prairie told Business Insider that people showing severe symptoms are being kept in a special dorm area where they are readied for deportation to El Salvador and Guatemala.

Cox denied this claim, saying that “any allegation that symptomatic persons are being removed is false,” but noted that the definition of symptomatic in this context for ICE is a fever of above 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature cutoff was changed from 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit on April 17, Cox said.

The Cameroonian kitchen worker said an officer told him that four coronavirus-positive detainees were transferred to Pine Prairie from a different facility. When he asked why ICE was bringing in new patients, he alleged the guard told him not to worry because the four in question were “on their way back to Mexico.”

Tiben also said two staff food servers at Pine Prairie tested positive for the coronavirus, and that a number of kitchen staff have not been showing up to work.

Thirteen ICE guards at Louisiana’s Alexandria Staging Facility, the last stop for detainees awaiting deportation flights out of the Alexandria International Airport, tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Times-Picayune.

Cox told the paper no one in custody who was known to be positive for the coronavirus was moved through the facility.

Crosses are placed in front of a church in Pine Prairie amid the COVID-19 outbreak across the state of Louisiana, on March 26, 2020.

REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

The detention center in Pine Prairie has an average daily population of 641, according to Cox, roughly half the number of residents the town has.

Guards and staff live in the surrounding Evangeline Parish, 70% of which voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election — a fact that detainees say the guards don’t hesitate to mention.

“The way the guards behave towards [black people] shows they have a deep hatred … They’re against us,” Nkem told Business Insider. 

Nkem, one of the 44 Cameroonian hunger-strikers, was detained at Pine Prairie for more than seven months before he was released on parole in late March.

“They would tell us Trump is doing a lot because he is sending back migrants who are feeding from [their] hard-earned currency,” he said.

*Editor’s Note: Source names have been changed or withheld to protect them and their families from any possible retaliation from ICE or the Cameroonian government. 

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