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As Jails And Prisons Reduce Populations, Advocates Call On ICE To Do The Same


There is a growing fear that a coronavirus outbreak will tear through the federal government's crowded detention centers for immigrants. Immigrant rights advocates are suing, and detainees are on hunger strikes. They're pressuring Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to release detainees before it confronts a humanitarian catastrophe. NPR's John Burnett has our story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: At present, ICE detained some 38,000 immigrants in a network of private, for-profit facilities scattered around the country. They're held in close quarters in jail-like conditions while they await their fate in immigration court. Detainees are getting alarmed. In the past week, guards have pepper-sprayed groups of detainees at two detention centers who refused to follow orders in a protest of their crowded surroundings.

TONY AGUSTIN: (Through interpreter) There's a lot of fear because we're not separated. Just to go to meals, we have to line up in front of three separate doors, all jammed together. We can't maintain 6 feet between us.

BURNETT: Tony Agustin is a Mexican national who's locked up at the Richwood Correctional Center outside of Monroe, La. He was rounded up in an ICE raid on a Mississippi chicken plant last August because he's in the country illegally. Like the majority of immigrants in federal custody, Agustin has no criminal convictions.

AGUSTIN: (Through interpreter) We have two televisions. One is tuned to CNN, so we know that more and more people are dying from this virus. That's why we're afraid. The guards tell us it's all lies, you can't believe the TV, but we know it's the truth.

BURNETT: A spokesman for LaSalle Corrections, which runs Richwood, says it has implemented a pandemic contingency plan, which includes intense cleaning and disinfecting of living areas and monitoring detainees for illness. But some federal judges have ordered ICE to release a handful of sick inmates. In Pennsylvania, a judge said it would be, quote, "unconscionable and possibly barbaric" to keep them jammed in with other detainees. A growing list of advocates from Amnesty International to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are sending letters to ICE complaining that more immigrants should be released on bond. Representative Joaquin Castro is chairman of the Hispanic Caucus.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: We've seen that situation in nursing homes, on cruise ships now, on a Navy ship. And it's no different with people who are confined in a closed space in ICE detention centers, where the coronavirus can spread very quickly.

BURNETT: ICE reports that at least eight detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 inside lockups in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Arizona. The agency says the health and safety of immigrant detainees is a top priority. And to that end, visitation has been suspended at all jails to prevent contagion.

But what about the guards? ICE reports at least six confirmed cases among employees at five different detention facilities. Dr. Chris Beyrer is professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In a call with reporters yesterday, he said during an epidemic, guards can easily introduce the disease into the facility, as they have at Rikers Island in New York.

CHRIS BEYRER: Most of these facilities have three eight-hour shifts every 24 hours. People are in and out of them all the time, going back to their communities and families.

BURNETT: Human rights advocates point to other U.S. jails and prisons that are trying to reduce their populations to stop the spread of infections. California has granted early release to 3,500 inmates, and county jails in Ohio, Iowa and New Jersey have done the same. So far, ICE shows no sign of following the trend.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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