By Madhvi Bahl
Farmville Detention Center, operated by the private prison company Immigration Centers of America (ICA), is the site of the largest outbreak of COVID-19 at a migrant detention center in the country. In July, 93 percent of people tested were positive for COVID; and in early August the outbreak took the life of James Hill. The medical neglect and brutality displayed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ICA over the past five months are part of a long and dark history of abuse at Farmville, which was recently revealed by FOIA documents obtained by the Advancement Project.
The people detained at ICA-Farmville have been organizing for their release since March 2020 and have repeatedly been met with violence and brutality. For months detained people and community groups warned ICE and Virginia elected officials of the inevitability of an outbreak to no avail. Today, hundreds of people are still detained at ICA-Farmville and Caroline Detention Center in Virginia, while the pandemic worsens across the country. If the situation in Virginia detention centers persists, there is likely to be consistent, life endangering outbreaks in both facilities. Releasing everyone from detention is the only safe and humane option.
Virginia detention centers are persistent sites of neglect, abuse, and brutality and the significant outbreaks of COVID-19 in these facilities only confirms this sobering truth. What follows is a detailed accounting of several recent instances of abuse, as well as the ongoing organizing efforts by detained people facing these cruel conditions.
Hunger strike at the end of March
At the end of March 2020, approximately 100 people detained at ICA-Farmville went on hunger strike to demand their release in response to growing concerns of a COVID outbreak. This came after 28 people sent a letter to Attorney General Barr on March 25th outlining their concerns and asking to be released. They received no response. The hunger strike ended after strikers faced retaliation, including being placed into “administrative segregation”, or solitary confinement, which is a form of torture. Leading up to the hunger strike, Dorm 7 in the facility was quarantined and phone lines to the dorm were severed, leaving people unable to communicate with their families and attorneys. Six people were moved into isolation. Less than a week after the quarantine was lifted in Dorm 7, a neighboring dorm was quarantined and more people were moved into isolation. The people detained at Farmville have continued to demand their release since the March 25th letter.
Transfers into VA detention centers
In mid-April, when most of the country was in lockdown, ICE transferred dozens of people from New York and New Jersey into the Caroline Detention Center, and people were moved between Caroline and ICA-Farmville. At the time, 80 people detained in New York and New Jersey detention centers had tested positive for COVID-19.
The first person tested positive for COVID at Caroline Detention Facility on April 21st and at ICA-Farmville on May 2nd. At this time ICE continued transfers, actively spreading the virus across the country. On June 2nd, ICE transferred 74 people from three facilities in Arizona and Florida to Virginia; 51 of those people later tested positive for COVID. By June 16th, 34 people had tested positive in ICA-Farmville. Today, a total of 339 people held at the facility have had COVID.
Continued deportation and enforcement
ICE has continued deporting people during the pandemic, thereby spreading the virus to other countries as well. In fact, health officials in Guatemala reported that 50–75 percent of people deported there in March tested positive for COVID-19. On April 15th, ICA and ICE violated their own quarantine to facilitate the deportation of a person. “As a nurse, I can’t believe ICE is willing to risk the safety of others by transferring somebody who is in quarantine,” said the individual’s wife, an emergency room nurse working on the frontlines of the pandemic. In August, while ICA-Farmville faced a massive outbreak, ICE attempted to deport a person who was exposed to COVID because of ICA-Farmville’s medical neglect.
In addition to continuing deportations, ICE has recently intensified enforcement in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area. In late July, ICE utilized unmarked cars and uniforms labeled ‘police’ to apprehend a man from his house in Washington, DC and detain him in Virginia, dramatically increasing the likelihood of him contracting COVID. In the same week, a man left a Virginia county jail and was immediately detained by ICE. Most recently, ICE, posing as police officers grabbed a man at a traffic stop in Woodbridge, Virginia and detained him at Caroline Detention Center. By continuing enforcement during a global pandemic ICE is putting more people’s lives at risk and further burdening an already overburdened healthcare system.
Brutality and use of violent force
ICE and ICA have continuously responded to detained people organizing for their release with brutal retaliation. In March, hunger strike leaders were placed in solitary confinement, On June 22nd, multiple people in Dorm 1 at ICA-Farmville refused a meal and to stand at evening count in protest of the growing outbreak at the facility. In response, guards fired at the protestors. They then put a dozen people into restraints and kept them in two segregated rooms for multiple days. Just over a week later, Farmville guards used four bottles of pepper spray on Dorm 7 residents asking for medical care. ICE and ICA continue to use a respiratory irritant, indoors on people they detain, knowing full well that COVID attacks the lungs.
The use of violent force to suppress freedom of speech and demands to be released has not been limited to ICA-Farmville. On July 13th, Caroline Detention Center guards entered Block TE and ordered everyone to their cells, indicating that they were to be quarantined. A group of people refused to leave until they were given more information and sanitizing supplies. A lieutenant threw Carlos Rivas, one of the men, to the ground, held him down by his neck, and beat him while he was heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” Mr. Rivas had to be carried to medical since he was bleeding and could not stand on his own. Later approximately ten witnesses were put into solitary confinement, some for as long as 60 days, and their access to phone calls was restricted. This brutality is not unique to Virginia detention centers. Concerningly, there has been a major increase in use of force incidents in ICE detention centers across the country during the pandemic.
Death of James Hill
On August 5th, James Hill died of COVID that he contracted while detained at ICA-Farmville; he was 72 years old. He had been detained at ICA-Farmville between April and July, despite being high-risk due to his age. Mr. Hill was supposed to return to Canada on July 9th, but fell ill and was hospitalized just days before his flight home. On August 5th, he lost his life to COVID and became the 17th person to die in ICE custody this fiscal year. Mr. Hill was detained at ICA-Farmville when ICE transferred 74 people from Florida and Arizona. Like approximately 90 percent of the people detained at the facility, he contracted COVID, which was then aggravated by pepper spray. Mr. Hill’s death could have been avoided if ICE and Virginia officials had listened to the concerns and fears of people detained at these facilities and shut them down months ago.
Litigation for release and better conditions
In April, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (CAIR), and Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) filed a motion for a temporary restraining order asking for the immediate release of their clients, who are at high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19. Virginia Judge O’Grady cruelly denied the temporary restraining order and outrageously asserted that people detained in Farmville and Caroline detention centers were not at heightened risk from COVID-19 despite massive outbreaks in detention centers, jails, and prisons across the country at the time. As evidence, he cited the lack of confirmed cases at Farmville Detention Center. Three days after his decision, two people tested positive for COVID-19 at ICA-Farmville. Weeks later, hundreds tested positive.
On July 22nd, four people detained at ICA-Farmville filed a lawsuit in federal court against ICE and the detention center because of the facility’s improper and inadequate response to the pandemic. They are represented by NIPNLG, LAJC, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. The plaintiffs asserted that ICE and ICA-Farmville are denying them their right to safety, medical care, and adequate food. On August 11th, Judge Brinkema ordered ICE to stop transferring people to ICA-Farmville. Shortly after a CDC inspection of the facility, the court ordered an additional inspection by public health experts, one chosen by the government and the other by the plaintiffs. The latter expert noted in his inspection report that the facility is failing to screen people, even those who are at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, who have ongoing symptoms of COVID-19, and are not being provided proper medical attention. Dr. Venters also wrote that the “level of animosity and disengagement” among the detained population towards ICA-Farmville “flows directly from the reality that widespread COVID-19 was caused by the mass transfers into the facility in June and that the predictable consequences of these transfers, detainees becoming ill, were ignored by staff.”
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Lack of response from Virginia elected officials
Some Virginia elected officials at the state and federal level have spoken out in favor of releasing people being held in Virginia detention centers. The vast majority, however, have remained silent and have failed to take any meaningful action, despite having the power to directly intervene and push for the shutdown of the detention facilities. It wasn’t until there were over 50 confirmed cases of COVID at ICA-Farmville that Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine put out a statement on June 26th calling on ICE to end transfers. On July 16th, they called on ICE to end transfers again; by then close to 300 people had tested positive for COVID at ICA-Farmville.
In mid-May, Governor Ralph Northam sent a letter to the Virginia congressional delegation offering to help with testing, and in July he urged the Trump administration to send the CDC to inspect ICA-Farmville. Governor Northam, a physician himself, has consistently placed responsibility on the federal government, saying the state has limited power to intervene. In a letter sent to the Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources, LAJC outlines why this is not the case and that the Governor can and should intervene. Governor Northam claims he has no jurisdiction over the facilities because they are under federal control. The detention centers, however, are not owned or operated by ICE — the Caroline facility is a regional jail operated by the county and Farmville is run by the private prison company ICA. According to Virginia law, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) can inspect any entity’s compliance with state law. Furthermore, during an emergency the Governor and the Virginia Board of Health are granted additional powers to protect public health. Governor Northam does not need to rely on the federal government to protect the people of Virginia — which they have clearly failed to do. He should use his emergency powers to inspect and shut down the facilities.
History of abuse and profiteering
The massive outbreak of COVID-19 at ICA-Farmville is part of a pattern of abuse at the facility. In 2011, Anibal Ramirez-Ramirez died after ICA staff ignored his numerous symptoms and interfered with nurses trying to provide him medical care. A 2011 ICE inspection found that ICA-Farmville failed to meet inspection standards and did not provide inspectors with the medical file or other records regarding Anibal’s death. In 2019, people detained at Farmville organized a “meal strike” in response to a mumps outbreak. The protesters sued the ICE Field Office Director and the ICA-Farmville Warden after guards attacked them, using pepper spray and putting some into solitary confinement.
New FOIA documents obtained by the Advancement Project, and released in conjunction with La ColectiVA, Sanctuary DMV, National Immigrant Justice Center, and Detention Watch Network have revealed a long history of abuse and medical neglect. In a report, the groups outline the violence and brutality perpetrated by guards, as well as horrible living conditions exposed through the documents. While the people detained at Farmville eat maggots, documents obtained by NIJC last year show that ICA is paid millions of dollars by the federal government to detain them.
The abuse, brutality, and medical neglect exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the overall cruelty of migrant detention. It is essential that the people detained in Virginia and across the country be released and the facilities where they are held shut down before more lives are lost.
Document listing articles, briefs, reports, and lawsuits mentioned in this piece.
Free Them All VA is an abolitionist coalition centered around amplifying the organizing of those incarcerated in Virginia detention centers, jails, and prisons. Our demand to free them all has no asterisk. All means all.