Private firms that run ICE detention centers promise Congress they'll work to stop COVID-19 spread

Two whistleblowers from a Louisiana facility gave Congress a letter saying management hadn't done enough to protect staff or detainees from COVID-19.
Image: A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his segregation cell back to general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California on Nov. 15, 2013.
A guard escorts an immigrant detainee from his segregation cell back to general population at the Adelanto Detention Facility in California on Nov. 15, 2013.John Moore / Getty Images file

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By Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — Leaders from four of the largest private prison companies running immigration detention centers pledged to members of Congress Monday that their employees are all required to wear face masks and will stay home from work if they are sick, as the number of COVID-19 cases among detained immigrants recently crossed 3,000.

The executives from CoreCivic, the Geo Group, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) and LaSalle Corrections responded to allegations that they were not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus in the facilities that they run under contract for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Prior to the hearing, two whistleblowers from the Richwood Correctional Center, a LaSalle Corrections facility in Richwood, Louisiana, submitted a letter to the House Homeland Security Committee alleging that management at the facility had not done enough to protect staff or detainees from the virus. The whistleblowers are represented by lawyers from the Government Accountability Project, a national whistleblower protection organization.

The two whistleblowers, who work or have worked inside LaSalle's Richwood facility, said staff there were discouraged from wearing masks in April, even after the first detainee tested positive for COVID-19.

One of the whistleblowers said the warden at Richwood told staff not to wear masks in early April, even after one of the detainees had tested positive. The warden said doing so would "cause 'hysteria' amongst the detainees," the whistleblower said.

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"There's a lot of mental stress as well as physical stress," another whistleblower said, adding that many employees at Richwood are concerned about infecting their family members.

According to ICE, 65 detainees at the Richwood facility have tested positive. ICE does not report the number of staff hired by contractors who have been infected by COVID-19, but the whistleblowers and other media outlets have reported two Richwood facility staff members have died from the virus.

LaSalle Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations. The company's executive director Rodney Cooper testified on Monday that the company has been regularly updating its protocols and issuing guidance since the beginning of the pandemic.

"Comprehensive protocols are in place for protection of staff and detainees, including the appropriate use of PPE [personal protective equipment] in accordance with CDC guidance," Cooper said.

A detainee who passed through a LaSalle processing center for immigrants in Jena, Louisiana, and is part of a lawsuit filed in federal court by the ACLU, alleged he was not properly safeguarded from the virus during his transit between three facilities over June 29 and 30.

"At Jena, I was barely there 24 hours. But I did see that a lot of the staff did not wear masks," said the plaintiff, Stephen Brown, in court documents. "I was especially surprised to see the nurse who was giving out medication not wearing her mask. She called me up…I had my mask on. I asked why she was not wearing her mask. She said she read that the CDC said masks do not protect you so she is not wearing one. She also said social distancing does not help."

Brown's suit seeks the release of migrants held in ICE detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Samantha Feinstein, one of the attorneys representing the Richwood whistleblowers, urged Congress to take action to secure better conditions at ICE facilities run by federal contractors.

"Whistleblowers are coming forward at substantial personal risk, but these truth-tellers feel compelled to speak out because workers and detainees are dying at Richwood; it will only get worse if things do not change immediately," she said.

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Democrats on the committee asked Damon Hininger, president and CEO of CoreCivic, if the company was conducting an investigation into allegations of unsafe conditions at the company's facility in Eloy, Arizona.

NBC News reported that nearly half of the staff has tested positive at the facility and more than 240 immigrants in a facility with an average daily population of 1,100 have also contracted the virus.

Hininger said, "If it's appropriate that we need to make a change or a tweak to our processes, we would do that in real time and not wait for an investigation."

Natalia Abrahams contributed.