Credit: Courtesy Farmville Detention Center

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UPDATE, July 13: According to a July 9 court document obtained by City Paper, 279 detainees at the Farmville Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19 as of July 8.

UPDATE, June 18: As of June 18, 24 Farmville Detention Center detainees had tested positive for COVID-19.A third detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 at an immigrant detention center in Farmville, Virginia, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE confirmed the first two positive tests on May 10.

Several of the facility’s dormitories, each of which holds roughly 60 detainees at a time, have been placed under quarantine since COVID-19 arrived in Virginia, and individual detainees have been placed under observation for flu-like symptoms. There are also reports of detainees being taken out of quarantine to be deported. Since the beginning of March, detainees at the facility have been deported to Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. As of June 10, ICE confirmed that two of the dorms at Farmville were under quarantine.

A group of Virginia investors owns Immigration Centers of America, the private company that runs the facility. Since the company began housing undocumented people for ICE in 2010, they have been the target of several lawsuits and an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. In spite of this, ICA seems determined to expand and has explored the possibility of opening facilities across the upper Midwest, in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois. They recently made headway in their ambitions to open a facility in Maryland.

Meanwhile, the situation at ICA’s only active detention facility has deteriorated. On March 25, detainees wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr pleading to go free rather than risk COVID-19 infection in detention. Detainees also attempted to stage a hunger strike, which was crushed when its organizers were thrown into “administrative segregation.”

News of confirmed cases at the facility came days after a judge denied a request for at-risk detainees to be let go. As part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of detainees at the Farmville Detention Center (FDC) and the Caroline Detention Facility, attorneys with the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition (CAIR) requested an injunction which would have seen their clients released. The two detainees held at the FDC, who hail from Guinea and Australia, were especially at risk from COVID-19 infection due to pre-existing conditions and advanced age, respectively.

The request says that as of late March, the Guinean detainee, who suffers from asthma, diabetes, and a major depressive disorder, had developed fatigue and a cough. A blood test revealed that his liver was underperforming. Doctors told the detainee he had picked up a virus, but they did not say what kind.

According to the request filed on April 13, guards at the facility were then aware of five “potential cases” of COVID-19 at the detention center. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said that not all of the detainees at the FDC had been provided with gloves and masks. (ICE says that all detainees were being provided with masks by April 13.)

JudgeLiam O’Grady denied the injunction request in a memorandum opinion and order filed on April 29. Amid more litigious justifications, O’Grady said that ICA Farmville had been quarantining new arrivals at the Caroline Detention Facility, roughly 115 miles away, for 14 days before bringing them in with the other detainees, and that each Farmville detainee and staff member had been provided with two N95 masks. Three detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 at Caroline.

“Employees who fail a medical screening are not permitted to return to work until they meet strict conditions,” O’Grady said in the filing. “Detainees are also screened at intake by using both temperature screenings and questions about COVID-19 symptoms. Positive responses result in the detainee being sent to a hospital.”

An April 24 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicinecalled infections passed on by people without symptoms “the Achilles’ heel of current strategies to control COVID-19.” Though the editorial focuses on an outbreak in a nursing home, its authors recommend that mass testing be implemented and “expanded to other congregate living situations, such as prisons and jails…”

According to ICE, 27 of detainees at the FDC had been tested as of June 10. (On June 1, there were 396 people detained at the facility.)

“Out of all of the cases in the country seeking the release of vulnerable individuals who are detained and most at risk of serious illness or death due to COVID-19, this was probably the worst decision,” says Adina Appelbaum, a CAIR Coalition lawyer working on the case. “The court failed to examine the extent of the public record, all the evidence we submitted. The court just accepted the government’s version of the facts in the brief.”

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The Farmville Detention Center has a long history of controversies related to health and sanitation. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Salvadoran man died at the facility soon after it opened. Later, a contractor for ICE would blame an inadequate screening process for neglecting to check the man’s vital signs.

In 2015, the facility allegedly served detainees food containing maggots. One man sued

“Often times I have nightmares of rotten maggots coming out of my nose, ears and mouth,” the detainee wrote in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. “I have nightmares of my body being used as a breeding ground for maggots.”

The detainee submitted a written complaint about the maggots in February 2015. Later that month, the facility’s director of detention wrote a memorandum stating “there were several portioned food trays served during the dinner meal on Saturday that contained larva of some kind.”

The director went on to say that an investigation had concluded that “a detainee, or group of detainees, planted the larva on the food trays in the kitchen … a few detainees within the population [are] trying to degrade the reputation of this facility. They are leveling accusations at this facility that are not based in any reality and are making attempts to tarnish our reputation and good name in the community.”

In March, the detainee followed up with ICA officials, saying “we know for sure that the kitchen workers did not put the maggots in the food …” According to the response the detainee received, ICA’s new position was that “there were not maggots in the food.”

The maggot case was dismissed by a Virginia judge, but according to an article on ICA’s efforts to open a facility in Michigan, ICA Chief Operating Officer Duane Ragsdale referenced an incident in which detainees were served food with “insects” while speaking before the city council of Ionia, Michigan. He blamed the facility’s food provider.

Ragsdale is a Virginia businessman who runs several companies that specialize in storage and warehousing. He also owns Extra Enterprises Construction, which shares an address with ICA’s main office in Richmond.

Around the same time as the maggot incident, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties opened an investigation into “issues involving the facility’s medical care, use of force and restraints, religious accommodation, environmental health and safety, and other conditions of detention.” DHS closed the investigation despite still receiving “numerous complaints” about medical concerns.

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In 2019, a few years after the DHS investigation was closed, an outbreak of mumps at the facility triggered a halt in lawyer visits and a detainee quarantine. Detainees who protested their treatment in the wake of the mumps lockdown ended up blasted with pepper spray, and protest leaders were placed in administrative segregation. Several detainees unsuccessfully sued the FDC’s director and ICE’s local field office director.

ICA’s director hired Spotts Fain, a Richmond law firm, to represent him in the 2019 case. It was the same firm ICA hired in 2011 (to the tune of $50,000) to lobby ICE to allow them to max out their inmate population capacity. 

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Long before the succession of lawsuits began, ICA struggled to get the Farmville Detention Center off the ground.

According to Bacon’s Rebellion, a Virginia policy blog run by former Virginia Business Magazineeditor James Bacon, a series of banks denied Immigration Centers of America’s loan requests. ICA did, however, receive money from a massive tobacco settlement resulting from a lawsuit in which 46 states and D.C. sued cigarette companies in the ’90s. ICA received more than $580,000 of the settlement from the Commonwealth of Virginia according to the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission grants database. Thanks in part to the tobacco money, ICA finally opened the $21 million Farmville Detention Center in 2010.

They also had help fromKen Cuccinelli, Virginia’s then-attorney general. Gerald Spates, then Farmville’s town manager, told the town’s local paper that Cuccinelli got involved after he was contacted by one of ICA’s lawyers. In those days, Cuccinelli was known for filing lawsuits that challenged the Affordable Care Act and restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, Cuccinelli was selected to lead the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, where he would pioneer the “public charge” rule that increased the government’s latitude to restrict green cards for immigrants who rely on government welfare programs. In November, he became acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency.

“I think it was all about his connection with the people from ICE,” Spates told the Farmville Herald. “[Cuccinelli] didn’t do anything that somebody else couldn’t have done, he just knew the right contacts to get the thing off dead center.”

Spates helped organize the arrangement in which ICA could operate the facility via an intergovernmental agreement between ICE and the town of Farmville. Farmville would agree to take charge of the detainees for ICE and ICA would work to maintain the detention center for Farmville. But, in Spates’ own words, Farmville was “ultimately responsible” for the ICA facility.

In a 2008 email, an ICE official explained that, since the formal agreement was between ICE and Farmville, representatives from the town should be invited to meetings regarding the facility’s construction and launch.

“It will be their decision to attend or not,” the ICE official wrote. In another email sent around the same time, the official wrote that Farmville had “authorized ICA to negotiate on its behalf.”

Before ICA Farmville hosted its first detainee, a detainee orientation manual was printed on Town of Farmville stationary.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that you are housed in an environment that is safe and clean, and that your daily needs are met while you are in ICE custody at the Town of Farmville-ICE facility,” the manual read.

Each month, Farmville invoices ICE. They pay the majority of what they receive from ICE to ICA, but when all is said and done the town keeps around $20,000 per month for hosting the facility. However, when the National Immigrant Justice Center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the town for email correspondence regarding any directives it was getting from ICE on COVID-19 testing at the FDC, it yielded no relevant results. (The request was submitted on April 20.)

Farmville does not appear to be including detainees at the ICA facility in their count of infected people in the town. There is no mention of the ICA facility in town council meetings stretching back to March.

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More than two years before James Bacon described ICA’s founders as having “no experience” running a detention facility, one of the company’s principal investors sought to put such concerns to rest.

“I hope that you will agree that this group is well equipped to build and operate this facility based on our experience in building and operating business,” Richmond real estate tycoon Russell Harper wrote in a 2008 email exchange with a contracting officer from ICE. “The key personnel on our team who each have over a decade of experience working with various government branches responsible for detainees can operate a quality environment for all.”

The contracting officer responded that he was not concerned about the makeup of the team launching the ICA project.

“I am sure each and everyone is capable,” said the contracting officer. “However, that’s not the only thing that goes into the area of determining responsibility and qualifications.” The officer went on to request a list of the company’s assets, a list of loans the company had applied for, lines of credit, corporate references, and a description of their accounting system. 

Harper is the son-in-law of the late CEO of the Home Builders Association of Virginia. He established his own company, Harper Associates LLC, in 1995, just over ten years after graduating from James Madison University. The real estate firm’s major projects include the Stratford Hills retail development (featuring Target, Chick-fil-A and “Mexico Restaurant”) and an office and warehouse development, both in Richmond.

Another of the company’s founders is Ken Newsome, president of AMF Bakery Systems. AMF is known for developing an innovative method for bending pretzels in 1949. The mechanism “twisted up to 50 pretzels per minute then moved them through the baking and salting process” according to the company’s website.  

Warren Coleman ran a shipping company called Richmond Freight. (Harper at one point owned 45 percent of that company.) Coleman became the point man for detainee transportation, and CEO in his own right of ICA Transportation LLC.

In a September 2008 email, Harper said he would continue to work with Harper and Associates, but pledged to make the detention center his primary focus going forward.

“We view this project as our #1 priority and will (devote) all our attention to this project to ensure it is a success for the government, employees and investors,” Harper wrote.

By 2017, Farmville and ICA were routinely billing ICE for more than $2 million a month.

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In 2019, ICA began looking into opening a facility over 200 miles northeast of Farmville.

According to FOIA documents described in a statement that Jesse Franzblau of the National Immigrant Justice Center submitted to the Maryland House of Delegates, ICA hired Cornerstone Public Affairs to help them cut a deal with the government of Sudlersville, Maryland, that would allow them to open a detention center in the town.

Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Sudlersville has a population of around 500 and a mountain of debt thanks in part to a development project that went bust after the housing market cratered in 2008. The project would have seen over 600 homes built in Sudlersville. A Request for Information (RFI) issued by ICE in 2019 presented the town with an opportunity to replenish its coffers by hosting a 600-plus bed detention facility.

Sudlersville town commissioner Ronald Fordtoured the ICA facility in Farmville. By December 2019, Ford was describing the FDC as “very well maintained, with great medical staff” according to the minutes of a commissioners meeting.

The response to a FOIA request submitted by the NIJC shows email exchanges between Cornerstone and the Sudlersville government in which they discuss a zoning ordinance that would allow for a detention center to be built in the town. However, due to budget issues the negotiations were put on hold.

In a December 2019 article in theBaltimore Sun, a former Queen Anne’s County commissioner fretted that talks between ICA and Sudlersville might resume while “no one is paying attention.”

A few months later, the town commissioners of Sudlersville rezoned the town to accommodate a civil detention center according to a Maryland chapter of the progressive organizing group Indivisible.

Viewable until recently on the town’s website, Ordinance 2019-05 amends Sudlersville’s zoning rules to accommodate civil detention services owned by private entities.

“At this time, the Town of Sudlersville is not aware of any current proposals for a detention center to be built,” the town’s clerk-treasurer wrote in an email exchange.

Kitty Maynard of Indivisible attended the virtual town commissioners meeting.

“As in previous meetings, the overwhelming majority said they did not want a detention center in town and asked why the commissioners were insisting on changing the zoning if the deal with ICA had fallen through,” Maynard says. “Commissioner Ford said, something along the lines of ‘we need to be ready’ for the next time they come back.’”