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“There’s No Social Distancing”: Immigrants Held in ICE Jails at Risk Amid New Omicron Surge

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Image Credit: Cinthya Santos Briones

As the Omicron variant sets record-high COVID-19 infection rates across the United States, we look at the conditions in the sprawling network of jails run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement where the Biden administration is holding more than 22,000 people. “There’s still a lot of people detained. There’s no social distancing. People are still facing COVID,” says longtime immigrant activist Maru Mora Villalpando, who adds that most COVID infections are coming from unvaccinated workers who are coming from outside of the jails. She describes how people held in GEO Group’s Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington, say conditions have gotten even worse during the pandemic, after a federal judge ruled the company must pay detained people minimum wage for work like cooking and cleaning instead of paying them a dollar a day. GEO Group responded by suspending its “voluntary work program.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As concerns grow about record COVID infections across the United States, we look now at conditions in the sprawling network of jails run by ICE — that’s Immigrant and Customs Enforcement — where the Biden administration is holding more than 22,000 people, who are often transferred around the country. ICE says fewer than 300 people in detention are being monitored for COVID. Rights advocates say this is surely an undercount.

Most of the ICE jails are run by private prison companies, like GEO Group, which are not transparent. In Washington state, people held in GEO Group’s Northwest ICE Processing Center say conditions have gotten even worse during the pandemic, after a federal judge ruled the company must pay detained people minimum wage for work, like cooking and cleaning, instead of paying them a dollar a day. GEO Group responded by suspending its so-called voluntary work program. On December 13th, GEO Group issued a memo at the Northwest ICE Processing Center that, quote, “no detainee is permitted to do any work previously done under the Program, including, but not limited to, work in the kitchen, the laundry areas, cutting hair, painting, waxing, or scrubbing floors, or cleaning the secure areas of the facility.”

This is Ivan Sanchez, held for more than a year at GEO Group’s ICE jail in Tacoma. In a call from inside to the group La Resistencia, he describes what happened after the federal judge ordered GEO Group to pay the detainees a living wage for their work.

IVAN SANCHEZ: We lost all our jobs and weren’t able to work anymore, so the facilities stayed dirty for about — since it lasted 'til now. They said they were going to hire a special crew to come and clean the facility, but that still hasn't happened. And they don’t want none of us to clean. And some of the officers aren’t cleaning theirs, even though they do clean. Other than that, I’d like to say that I’ve worked for them for about three years, and I also cleaned floors in additional to that, and I did barbershop. And they wouldn’t pay me for that. So I would just get a soda or sandwiches or some chips and candy. That was it.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Washington state recently passed a law barring private, for-profit prison companies from contracting with agencies there, but GEO Group has signed a contract to keep its ICE jail in Tacoma open until 2025.

For more, we’re joined by Maru Mora Villalpando, the co-founder of La Resistencia and a longtime immigrant activist. In September, the government dropped its deportation case against her and granted her lawful permanent residency.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your immigration status. Can you talk about why the Tacoma jail is open, and then talk about what’s happening inside with this change of what should happen to the prisoners who are also workers?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Yes. Thank you. Good morning, Amy.

Yeah, what we’ve seen is that the detention center is still open. Although their contract says from 2015 that it will be open for 10 years, because that’s what the last contract was signed for, we know that every year Congress has to approve the budget for this kind of work — in this case, for detention centers to continue operating. Actually, the attorney general here in Washington filed a countersuit in September against GEO for remaining open regardless of our H.B. 1090 law. And so, according to the attorney general, for every day that they remain open, they will have to pay a fee. We assume that by next September we can actually get it shut down, because, yes, they are violating the law. Obviously, GEO filed a lawsuit — I’m sorry, an appeal to this lawsuit. And that’s what they spend the money on. They spend their money on fighting lawsuits of this kind, and they usually lose.

And in the meantime, what they decided to do was to remain — to keep people remaining detained in squalor conditions, in filth. It took over a month for GEO to actually hire an outside company. The company is called Trustus. And what we heard from people in detention is that there are some instances where about a crew of maybe two to three people show up to clean maybe for half-hour, maybe at the most an hour. And we’re talking about units that hold maybe 60 to 100 people in total. Maybe that’s not the total that we have right now in every pod. As far as we know, on December 30th, there were 411 people detained. It’s way less than the average that was 1,500 in the past, pre-pandemic. Yet there are still a lot of people detained.

There’s no social distancing. People are still facing COVID. Just from December 22 to December 30th, there were five cases of COVID in the detainee population. There were seven cases of GEO guards with COVID in that same period of time, plus three ICE employees also testing positive for COVID. So, having a crew of two to three people showing up for half-hour, maybe an hour, maybe two to three days sporadically here and there in different units, is not going to solve the problem of having unsanitary conditions.

This, the way we see it and based on what people in detention have told us, is nothing but retaliation against people detained, that thanks to their work, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people going on hunger strike, they sounded the alarm about this exploitation. And now that Washington state passed the law against this kind of detention centers, and also a federal jury and a federal judge determined that this should not be the case and people should be paid for their labor, what GEO does is they come against people in detention, and they retaliate, and they just create further worse unsanitary conditions in the middle of a global pandemic.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Maru, I wanted to ask you — the GEO Group obviously is a national private prisons company. It has more than a hundred jails and detention centers around the country. Could you talk about what, in the lawsuit, that exposed the exploitation of people there? There was something called the sanitation memo you found, that you referred to as the hunger games? Could you explain that memo and what it signified?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Yes. So, we knew, once the first hunger strikes started happening here in the detention center in Tacoma, and, really, throughout the country, that GEO has relied on the voluntary work program, which they pay a dollar a day for all this kind of work, really to create people detained as slave labor to be the backbone of the detention center.

But there’s also a part of that program that doesn’t give any money to people in detention. So, another way to make people — everyone, regardless of you choosing to go into this voluntary work program or not, everyone had to clean. That meant that every week there will be a contest, that we called the hunger game, a contest so every pod will compete against each other to see who’s the cleanest pod. And the reward was a night with the Xbox, that you can borrow, and chicken for the night, because, obviously, the food that is given to people in detention is nothing but trash. That’s another of the demands that people that have staged hunger strikes have actually named as number one. They want real food. And so, the conditions that GEO created in the first place of hunger, it’s used by pushing people to clean the units.

So, the most recent one that we saw, in early December, there were these two pods that won — C3 and A2, I believe — and, actually, one of the pods, that remained in third place, called us, and the people in that pod told us, “Well, yeah, C3 is going to win, because there’s very few people there. But if you compare to our pod, there’s way many of us here. We cannot compete against a pod that there’s less people, and they produce less trash, let’s say.”

So, this is another way in which GEO profits from not only the detention of people, but to actually make them clean, make them sustain the facility. People in detention did everything except security in the detention center. And now that GEO is saying, “No, no, they’re not going to do it,” because they refuse to pay the minimum wage, people still feel obligated to clean, because they don’t want to live in squalor, they don’t want to live in filth, and they’re afraid of the conditions in regards to COVID, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally — 

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in relation —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In relationship to COVID, you mentioned ICE has said that nine people held in its sprawling network of for-profit jails have died from COVID. What is your sense, especially with the Omicron, the spread of the Omicron variant, what is happening in terms of COVID in these detention facilities?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Well, it’s spreading fast. We saw an uptick in June. We actually kept track of numbers since June. When actually the Biden administration started transferring more people throughout the country, we’ve seen an increase in detention. You know, the numbers of people detained have grown since Trump left. When Trump left, we were at 15,000 capacity; now we’re now at 21,000 throughout the nation. We even receive calls from other detention centers, such as Georgia. Yesterday, we received like five calls.

People are really worried about it, because not only it means transfers are happening and ICE doesn’t give absolutely no information about what they do in regards to COVID or anything in general, but also what we’ve seen is that guards and ICE employees might not be vaccinated. And the way we find out is because in this case in Washington, the notices that ICE has to give to the judge, the immigration judge, because there’s a lawsuit pending also in regards to COVID cases — when there’s a case, a positive case of COVID, ICE needs to notify this judge. And we get these notices. And what we can tell is that most of the guards and the ICE employees are not vaccinated; otherwise, the notice will say this person was vaccinated. And so, what people in detention have said, not only here but throughout the nation, is most of the COVID cases that we’re going to get in detention come from outside. That means all these employees that refuse to get vaccinated, they bring the COVID in, and we have no recourse, knowing also that we have suffered medical neglect for years and years in detention centers.

AMY GOODMAN: Maru Mora Villalpando, we want to thank you so much for being with us, a well-known immigrant rights activist. As we turn to Europe, where a French humanitarian group has filed a complaint against Britain and France over the drowning of 27 refugees. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Lost Singer” by Ismail Kaseem. The song was part of The Calais Sessions, a benefit album recorded at the Calais refugee camp with refugees and professional musicians years ago.

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