Credit: Courtest Farmville Detention Center

One of the dormitories at a local detention center that holds undocumented people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement is under quarantine for possible exposure to coronavirus. According to a press release put out by area advocacy groups Sanctuary DMV and La CollectiVA, contact with those in the quarantined dormitory has been cut off since Tuesday. 

As of publication time, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Farmville, Virginia detention facility, although six detainees spent two weeks in isolation. Two of those six individuals experienced flu-like symptoms and were under observation in a medical unit. According to ICE officials, the only two detainees who have actually been tested for COVID-19 were tested before arriving at the facility. Both tests came back negative. 

Sanctuary DMV says questions from detainees about what is happening in the quarantined dorm are brushed off by staff members. 

On Thursday, Sanctuary DMV and La CollectiVA called for the release of all detainees, claiming that Immigration Centers of America (ICA), the private company that runs the facility, is an non-essential business that should be shut down during the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, detainees staged a hunger strike to protest conditions in the 700-bed facility. The strike was promptly shut down. ICE officials told Washington City Paper on Saturday that they did not recognize the hunger strike, and that although some detainees had turned away food, “as of Thursday evening, no detainees are refusing facility-provided meals.” (ICE has specific parameters for defining a hunger strike: 72 hours without eating or nine missed meals with no snacking in between.) 

A woman whose fiancé is currently detained at the Farmville Detention Center (FDC) says that her soon-to-be husband was picked up by ICE outside his home in January when he was leaving for work. Though she says he has no criminal record, ICE aimed to return him to El Salvador (where she said he has been threatened by MS-13) due to a missed court date. 

According to his fiancé, the 28-year-old construction worker ended up at FDC’s dormitory number six, which houses around 75 people. Dormitory number seven is the section under quarantine.

“You can hear when I’m talking to him. People coughing,” the woman says. The woman asked not to be named in this story due to fears of retaliation against her and her fiancé

ICE officials say that every dorm has “hand sanitation stations” and soap available for hand washing. According to the Farmville Detention Center’s website, the facility’s goal is to “provide a safe, humane, and appropriately secure civil detention environment that offers an appealing alternative to the standard method of detention for federal immigrants while they navigate the immigration process.” The facility is accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC.) 

But the facility has been accused of shortfalls related to detainee healthcare in the past, and the criticisms come not just from activists. In 2011, the same year a Salvadoran man died at the FDC after nurses neglected to take his vitals, the facility failed an inspection conducted by ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, its parent agency. 

In 2015, DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties launched an investigation of the facility in response to a series of complaints from detainees about the facility’s medical care, use of force by staff, environmental health and safety, and other conditions. 

DHS closed the complaints that spurred the investigation in 2016, but noted in a memorandum that “CRCL continues to receive numerous complaints concerning Farmville, primarily related to medical concerns at this facility.” Redacted from the memorandum is information on use of force incidents at the facility. 

In the summer of 2019, the FDC saw an outbreak of mumps that infected 24 detainees. 

“It’s not surprising that when you have people stacked on top of each other like sardines, when an outbreak does start it’s going to rip through one of these facilities like wildfire,” Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center told a Virginia public radio reporter at the time. According to coverage in theFarmville Herald, five FDC staff members were also infected in the mumps outbreak. Staff members were asked to self quarantine at home.

At the time, an ICE spokesperson told the Herald, “ICE detainees in a detention facility are cohorted (separated from the general population) if they were exposed to someone with confirmed, probable or suspected mumps.” 

The FDC has been accredited by the NCCHC since 2013, and did not lose their accreditation even while under DHS investigation. The NCCHC says they will not comment on a “specific facility, company or situation.” 

In a letter addressed to Attorney General William Barr, 28 Farmville detainees pleaded to be set free. The letter, dated March 25, calls attention to the churn of employees moving in and out of the facility on a daily basis, and highlights the fact that detainees are held at the facility for civil immigration violations, not criminal offenses. 

“(I)mmigration cases may be heard in a future date,” says the letter, “so it is not an unbearable loss for the government when compared with the potential loss of lives.” 

ICE does not have a direct agreement with ICA for the operation of the facility. Instead, the town of Farmville has an intergovernmental agreement with DHS. Every month, the town invoices DHS for around $2 million and gets to keep around $20,000 for itself. 

Although ICE has backed off of removal operations due to the pandemic, officials recently told ProPublica that they have no plans to release already detained people in spite of growing tension at immigration detention facilities across the country. 

In Aurora, Colorado, detainees were quarantined in mid-March at a facility run by The Geo Group, a company that runs detention centers and correctional facilities throughout the United States. In New Jersey, where five detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, there are hunger strikes for more soap and toilet paper. ICE detainees have also tested positive in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. 

Jails and prisons throughout the country have seen outbreaks of COVID-19. Rikers Island jail in New York has more than 200 confirmed cases. The DC Jail had 18 confirmed cases at last count. The number is steadily climbing. 

Madhvi Venkatraman, an activist who works with Sanctuary DMV and the South Asian Rapid Response Initiative, says the Farmville detainees who incited the hunger strike faced retaliation. According to Venkatraman, strike leaders are being placed in solitary confinement. ICE officials confirm that two detainees were taken into “administrative segregation” for inciting a demonstration.  

In an interview with Washington City Paperfor a previous article, an individual who spent time detained at the Farmville facility in fall 2018 also said that detainees who complained about their treatment at the facility were punished with solitary confinement.

“It’s one hundred percent within ICE’s power to release people from detention,” Venkatraman says. “This is a health risk. They’re putting people’s lives in danger.” 

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