His cough is hollow, a raspy effort he said feels like blades scraping his lungs.
Whispering into the phone — his one vehicle to the outside world as he grapples with a reality he calls “a hell we’re living in” — he recites the horrors he’s come to know well at Farmville’s immigrant detention center: bugs in food, beds less than 6 feet apart, dust particles in vents he fears will kill him if COVID-19 doesn’t, and medical attention that’s delayed because nearly everyone at the center has tested positive.
“I’m scared to die here,” he said on a collect call from inside the detention center. The detainee, who tested positive for the coronavirus, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The facility, 4 miles from Longwood University and 65 miles southwest of Richmond, is the forced temporary home for adult immigrant men facing deportation on nonviolent offenses.
On June 2, 74 transfers from detention centers in Florida and Arizona — two coronavirus hot spots — walked through its doors. Health officials, lawyers and advocates had warned against the risk since March. That month, the Virginia Department of Corrections suspended inmate transfers as a safety precaution.
By the end of June, fifty-one of those 74 transfers to Farmville had tested positive, the apparent catalyst that would make the all-adult male center the largest coronavirus outbreak in a U.S. immigrant detention facility. There, 259 of the 268 detainees — nearly 97% — currently in the facility are confirmed positive. The facility has recorded 339 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the ICE website, a tally that includes people who have been released.
“This was during a time period when the virus was still heavily circulating ... so what possible rational reason is there for ICE to do this?” U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said Tuesday during a hearing for a lawsuit filed by four detainees. “There were some terrible mistakes made along the way.”
Detainees said in the lawsuit that on July 1, they protested facility conditions and lack of testing and were met with pepper spray. Six were hospitalized with severe symptoms by July 11. Weeks later, a man died, marking the facility’s first COVID-related death and the fourth in a U.S. immigrant detention center.
The four detainees — three have tested positive and one said he’s still awaiting results — filed the lawsuit against ICE and the facility on July 21, alleging inhumane conditions and failure to access medical treatment, protective equipment and adequate food.
The detainees said they have been threatened with transfers to a Texas facility while they await their deportation hearings. Immigration Centers of America-Farmville spokesperson Robert Brown says the allegations in the lawsuit are false.
On Monday, two months after Gov. Ralph Northam and immigrant advocates asked for federal intervention, a 10-person epidemiologist team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived to test all staff and detainees and track transmissions outside of the facility.
On Tuesday, Brinkema ordered the facility to temporarily halt transfers — none has arrived at the facility since the 74 on June 2 — and allow the detainees’ lawyers to be present when the CDC presents its findings to the facility on Friday.
ICE and ICA-Farmville spokesmen said leaders did what they could in a volatile public health crisis and established protocols well ahead of the pandemic’s peak.
But advocates and state officials call it a stunning health care failure marked by repeated refusals to accept help and stop outside transfers, especially after the 2019 mumps outbreak that infected 24 detainees.
Inside the facility, one detainee said they clean up after themselves when vomiting or diarrhea occur to make sure the smell doesn’t linger. For about $1 an hour, some detainees scrub the COVID-19 positive dorms, initially with no protective equipment or cleaning guidelines, he said.
“When we heard the pandemic was happening and we thought we could be infected, they said no.”
In a statement, ICE spokesperson Kaitlyn Pote said the majority of those with the virus are asymptomatic but are being closely monitored, including the two detainees exhibiting symptoms. Everyone in need of medical attention is being seen and given medical updates, Pote said.
Four detainees in the lawsuit share a different story of incessant coughing without protective equipment, vomiting, trouble breathing and fevers that limit sleep. Lawyers, civil rights groups and immigrant advocates have been calling for the release of detainees since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic — citing health risks and inability to social distance.
According to ICE, 40% of its detained population has been released since March, including more than 900 medically at-risk people.
Advocates say it’s not enough, especially in cramped spaces.
“Nursing homes and jails are an active breeding ground for coronavirus to spread. It’s impossible for people to protect themselves and socially distance in those settings,” said Adina Applebaum, program director at CAIR Coalition, an immigrant advocacy group.
In Virginia, a third of the state’s 708 outbreaks are in congregate settings such as schools, prisons and detention centers, according to the Department of Health, contributing to 42 deaths and 3,141 cases as of Tuesday.
Social distancing guidelines at the facility include staggering the direction detainees sleep on their cots by alternating head to foot, but detainees still feel the cough droplets from others.
Brown said in a statement that the last transfers accepted June 2 were placed on 14-day quarantine in empty dorms. Two had symptoms, according to Brown, and none intermingled with the existing population.
J.P. Hervis, spokesperson for Armor Health, the medical provider at Farmville, said the COVID-19 response protocol at Farmville is “even more cautious and restrictive than the CDC guidelines” and that detainees were issued three expired K95 masks - which complies with CDC guidelines - two cloth masks and two surgical masks.
Any staff members who fail the screening upon entering the building or who have possibly been exposed to the virus are required to stay home on paid leave, Hervis added.
But for a facility that could house upward of 800 detainees, ICA-Farmville has only 14 medical beds, three negative pressure rooms — which prevent virus particles from escaping — and six that aren’t negative pressure.
While initially capable of isolating based on need, Armor Health acknowledged in the lawsuit that “there are not enough rooms to currently serve this purpose for all at-risk individuals or those with positive test results.”
Armor said in the lawsuit that transfers from Florida and Arizona with positive test results were quarantined together. An ICA spokesperson told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the detainees from different states were placed in separate dormitories.
The sworn statements from ICE, ICA-Farmville and Armor state that the medical records do not match detainee reports, adding that the facility is in full compliance.
“If a nearly 90 percent infection rate, multiple hospitalizations, and one death (to date) is the result of compliance with [Performance-Based National Detention Standards] and CDC guidance, one wonders whether non-compliance could look any worse,” the plaintiffs wrote in their suit.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Ismael Castillo Gutierrez, said he’s still experiencing COVID-19 symptoms — nausea, headaches, diarrhea, chest pain — and feelings of suffocation. He said he did not ask for help because the facility only gives Tylenol and Pepto-Bismol.
The lawsuit said detainee Bolanos Hernandez is working in the kitchen despite exhibiting symptoms and that the food is “inedible,” and includes expired milk, undercooked foods and raw rice, potatoes and beans.
In a 55-page response, ICA defendants said no detainee has shown symptoms since July 10 and that its medical staff — which include ICE epidemiologists — screens detainees for COVID-19 symptoms daily.
As of Aug. 5, ICA-Farmville has conducted 858 tests, according to the statement, with each detainee tested at least once. ICA also said claims about the kitchen are false.
But ICA-Farmville has not mandated staff testing, saying in a statement to The Times-Dispatch that it was recommended not to by the Prince Edward County Health Department, “especially for staff that were asymptomatic.”
In a statement, they added legal counsel further advised that without the health department declaring a public health emergency, “We could not mandate tests as a condition of employment.”
VDH spokesperson Maria Reppas said Tuesday that “the facility was never advised by VDH-Piedmont HD not to conduct mass testing of staff” and that Virginia has been under a public health emergency since mid-March.
Bob Mauskapf, the director of emergency preparedness for the Virginia Department of Health, said the VDH and local health department are in constant contact with the facility and offered COVID-19 testing for the detention center’s staff in July and were denied twice.
The ICA said the VDH offered to mobilize the National Guard to do mass testing but declined because the VDH said it would take four weeks. Reppas said the VDH worked with ICA-Farmville to schedule a point-prevalence survey on July 21 with the National Guard. The center canceled the event over a week beforehand.
“If scheduling was a problem, they presumably would not have confirmed this event,” Reppas said.
Even if given consent by the facility to enter, the VDH could only offer suggestions, added Reppas, which is why Northam has pushed for federal intervention since May 14.
The Legal Aid Justice Center sent letters to state and federal officials on March 20 and April 7 asking for facility inspections. On July 22, Brown told the Farmville Herald that 27 of the facility’s 230 staff tested positive.
ICA-Farmville’s June 2020 inspection was done remotely without inspectors on site due to the pandemic. The report cited 16 deficiencies, four of which were under medical care and one under food.
The report listed having all health care staff as “verifiably licensed, certified, credentials and/or registered in compliance with applicable state and federal requirements” as a priority. Another was obtaining informed consent from patients upon admission to the facility. Brown said the findings were minor and “mostly incomplete paperwork issues.”
James Hill, a 72-year-old detainee who tested positive, had not died by the time of inspection and an investigation remains underway.
In new court filings on Monday, four detainees allege continued failure in accessing medical care and controlling the outbreak.
Gutierrez said he hasn’t seen a large reduction in Farmville’s facility population, adding that 30 to 40 people remain in his dorm that can fit up to 100 men. Hill was one of them.
Lawyers for ICA-Farmville said the facility is currently at about half capacity.
They also said in the lawsuit that ICE has “paid particular attention to detainees who might be at higher risk to COVID-19” including those who are immunocompromised or over the age of 60, and implemented additional case monitoring.
Hill said otherwise, according to his nephew, Douglas Hunt. Hunt said in an interview Friday that he repeatedly asked for medical attention and for help but did not receive it. Brown said the facility does not have documentation of a request from Hill.
Hill’s nephew told The Times-Dispatch on Friday that his uncle’s symptoms were aggravated after guards released pepper spray on July 1. Hill was among the group, according to Gutierrez, when “the pepper spray started coming out in a gush that did not stop” and residue from the chemical agent lingers on the dorm walls.
“If you touch a chair and then touch your face, you can feel the burn from the pepper spray on your skin,” Gutierrez said. “When detainees mop the floor, people start sneezing and coughing because we still feel the pepper spray.”
An ICA spokesperson said Hill was not part of the incident nor did he experience the chemical agent. Jeffrey Crawford, director of ICA Farmville, said the July 1 incident that resulted in guards using pepper spray was because detainees did not comply with the morning count.
Ten days later, Hill was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and the virus had spread to 93% of detainees.
Pote said that only some staff carry pepper spray. Since March 14, Pote said there have been five instances in which pepper spray was used and each time is internally investigated as use of force.
Luis Oyola, community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said detainee dissent has been met with force in years past, including during the mumps outbreak last summer. Contact with pepper spray results in coughing, which in prison-like facilities can exacerbate the virus’s spread.
In 2019, the facility received 80 medical care grievances — 18 in May, right before the facility neared its mumps peak — and 9,000 sick call requests, according to the facility’s significant incident summary.
In a 2017 inspection report, the DHS reported 23 incidents with a chemical agent. All detainees were seen by medical services and decontaminated, according to the report, and only one incident was deemed “inappropriate and unnecessary force.”
The 2017 report also said there weren’t enough wash basins or toilets in five of the nine dormitories to maintain personal hygiene. On Tuesday, an ICA representative could not answer the judge when asked the ratio of detainees to a single toilet or sink.
In 2011, a 33-year-old man died from liver complications and that year’s inspection report, while giving ICA-Farmville a passing rating on medical care, included failing staff for responsiveness to medical emergencies.
While ICA says it has rectified the issues and passed standards every year except 2011, lawyers and community organizers continue questioning the facility’s capability to manage the outbreak with one full-time doctor, roughly 20 nurses and a few nursing assistants.
Pote said the health and safety of ICE detainees remains a priority, and Brown, the ICA spokesperson, said the facility refutes the allegations, adding that its medical staff monitors temperatures and screens detainees multiple times a day.
Lawyers for detainees will have to wait for the CDC’s debriefing Friday, hoping it will offer answers.
Until then, the detainee who said his lungs feel like hot coals when he breathes keeps track of the days his symptoms continue and of the death toll at immigrant detention centers.
On Tuesday, it stood at four.