'I'm afraid to take COVID home,' a guard at an ICE detention facility says

"Other officers have already tested positive and they are in hospitals, fighting for their lives as we speak," the guard said.
River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La.
River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La.Google Maps

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By Belisa Morillo and Damià Bonmatí, Noticias Telemundo Investiga

A guard at an immigrant detention facility in Louisiana says he is afraid his job is putting him at risk.

"My biggest worry is going to work every day, knowing that I am not adequately protected from COVID-19 and that there are diagnosed cases," he said, not wanting to use his name for fear of retaliation from his employer.

The guard has been working for several years at the River Correctional Center, in Ferriday, Louisiana, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility managed by the private company LaSalle Corrections.

He says any daily actions now seem like a risk, from dialing a security pin on a keyboard to opening the cell door of a prisoner infected with the coronavirus. Another employee at the same detention center, who has worked there for years, corroborated the guard's account to NBC News.

Two other guards who worked for the same company at another ICE detention center in Richwood, Louisiana, died of the coronavirus in April, The Associated Press reported.

Carl Lenard, 62, and Stanton Johnson, 51, had at one point been prevented from wearing face masks amid the nationwide shortage of PPE, according to their families. That same order has also affected the rest of the workers in Richwood and River: "At first they did not want us to wear a mask, they did not want us to affect the morale of the detained population," the guard said.

LaSalle did not reply to questions from NBC News about these allegations but said to the AP that the company is now providing PPE to guards.

Fearing that he had caught the virus, the guard said he underwent a test a few weeks ago, paying for it himself. He said It came out negative, but the fear persists.

Afraid of walking the hall

Two detainees at the River Correctional Center tested positive for COVID-19, according to ICE.

The guard says they were put in isolation cells marked with orange warning signs. But immigrants and activists have been warning for nearly two months that it's impossible to take adequate safety measures in detention centers to stem the pandemic.

According to a study by researchers from several universities that was published in April in the Journal of Urban Health, once the coronavirus enters a detention facility, most all or almost all of the detainees will probably be infected within three months.

"Preventing the rapid spread necessitates intervention measures, such as granting ICE detainees widespread release from an unsafe environment by returning them to the community," the study concluded.

At the River Correctional Center, detainees who are not diagnosed as infected remain in dormitory cells that house between 70 and 80 people. But in order to go make a call or see a doctor, for example, they have to pass through the same hallway that contains the isolation cells that house the detainees infected with COVID-19, according to the guard. He adds that a trash can with waste from the isolation cells is also in the hallway.

"The sick are in the cells in that hallway," he said. "The cells are not properly set up; that is, you still have to open the doors and open the gate to give them food and other necessary activities." A second employee confirmed the guard's description of the facility's layout to NBC News.

“When all this had already started, they continued to transfer migrants, both recently detained and from other centers," he said.

Asked by NBC News about the only corridor for all inmates, Bryan Cox, a spokesperson for ICE, did not specify the conditions at River Correctional Center but said, “that’s generally the case for any building.” LaSalle did not respond on how the company isolated the detainees infected with coronavirus.

ICE says that it only counts its own employees in the statistics of those infected by the coronavirus but does not keep track of the workers of the companies with whom it subcontracts. NBC News has not been able to independently verify whether other LaSalle officers have been diagnosed or where those infections may have taken place.

LaSalle Corrections did not respond to NBC News requests for comment on the issue.

The guard says that all the cells, whether detainees are infected or not, are accessed through the same corridor that officers like him use. The idea of working there daily terrifies him.

"Other officers have already tested positive and they are in hospitals, fighting for their lives as we speak," he said. "I am afraid to take COVID home, I do not want to take it to my family."

The guard believes infected detainees shouldn't be housed in the same building.

"They have to be sent to a place where they can be treated properly and have personnel who strictly take care of them and have experience with that," he said. "But the medical staff we have here is limited. "

Some medical workers are employees of LaSalle, according to the latest inspection, conducted for ICE on March 12 by The Nakamoto Group, Inc. which determined that the conditions at the site were "acceptable." The inspection also says that part of the workers of the facility are hired through the sheriff’s department, which signed a contract with LaSalle to run the facility.

Richwood Correctional Center, the other ICE detention center that employed two LaSalle workers who died, has been a focus of complaints by detainees.

At least one immigrant in ICE custody died from COVID-19, the agency reported in May 7.

It has had at least 64 immigrant detainees infected with COVID-19 at Richwood, according to ICE; nationwide there are 1,145 cases among detainees and 2,194 have been tested. There are 27,908 detainees in ICE custody, as of May 9; that means approximately 8 percent of detainees in ICE custody have been tested.

Among the sick in Richwood was Raúl Luna, originally from Mexico and recovering from rectal cancer. He was diagnosed with the coronavirus in a hospital, as confirmed by ICE to Telemundo, which like NBC News is owned by NBCUniversal. Luna was returned to the detention center where there are already dozens of infected detainees, and stayed there for two weeks. On Sunday May 2, he was released on parole, his lawyer told NBC News. In the third week of May he tested positive again.

Luna says his survival depends on a colostomy bag. Even before the virus, Luna said, he was worried about the conditions at the center. “The water in the showers is very hot — every time I take a shower, I burn. It is inhumane how the bathrooms are full of mold, full of bacteria." La Salle did not comment on these allegations.

Detainees are asking for better security measures. Uriel, a Mexican detainee at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, also managed by LaSalle, said that workers and detainees were provided with masks only from the last week of April.

"The officers did not wear a mask and gloves for weeks, they are wearing them now," said Uriel, who asked not to disclose his full name out of fear for his safety.

He added that guards “take the food to where the sick are and they still go to the kitchen and continue working. I say that they themselves are spreading the virus here. There is no distancing, we eat together, about 60 people, we sleep together." LaSalle did not comment on the detainee's allegations.

ICE said that the inmate population has decreased by 7,000 people since the beginning of March and that the facilities are at 70 percent capacity or less to "increase social distancing." ICE also said to NBC News that the agency is using quarantining to avoid the spread of the virus.

An earlier version of this story was first reported for Noticias Telemundo Investiga.

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