Immigrant detainees describe poor conditions

Fear grips immigrants held at ICE detention center in Batavia; they say facility not equipped to keep them safe from COVID-19

Updated: 1:10 p.m.

It’s called B-2, one of nine units at the detention center run by ICE in Batavia. These days it’s a terrifying place for those held there.

Most of the 50 or so men confined there are coughing and displaying other symptoms of COVID-19. The entire unit has been placed in a 14-day quarantine.

Six detainees were removed Wednesday, and today a government attorney told a federal court that four of them had tested positive. Four others from B-2 are awaiting test results.

Social distancing? Near impossible in detention settings.

Soap and hand sanitizer? Running in short supply.

That’s the scene portrayed by immigrants held inside the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility. It’s especially dire in B-2, according to two detainees who most recently spoke to Investigative Post by phone Wednesday. 

“Right now, everybody is coughing,” one Latin American detainee said. “I have to leave it in God’s hands. They’re not prepared.”

By “they,” he means Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, which operates the detention center, located 40 miles northeast of Buffalo. Attorneys representing ICE and other federal agencies appeared this morning before Western District Judge Lawrence Vilardo to respond to a lawsuit seeking the release of 23 detainees held at the Batavia facility. Three have subsequently been released. The lawsuit contends the detainees are particularly vulnerable to infection because of age or underlying medical conditions. 


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ICE officials would not answer questions posed by Investigative Post about conditions at the facility. A spokesman did confirm, however, that one detainee was taken to an area hospital Tuesday with chest pain and tested for COVID-19. Individuals who may have had contact with him have also been tested, the spokesman said. 

In papers filed with the court, ICE and other federal agencies have said they’ve taken a number of steps to sanitize the facility. Also, surgical masks have been provided to some detainees and steps have been taken to screen and quarantine new arrivals. 

A total of five detainees, including three from other units within the facility, have spoken with Investigative Post by phone. They said the design of the facility precludes social distancing and that there are insufficient supplies of soap and hand sanitizers. They spoke of fear of contracting the deadly virus.

Investigative Post also obtained a video recording in Spanish of a phone call featuring several women being held. Like others detainees quoted in this story, Investigative Post has chosen not to identify them for concern of retaliation by authorities.

“We request that the government, since they deprived us of our freedom, do not deprive us of our life,” the primary speaker told a loved one in the video. “In this place we do not have (sanitizer), sometimes we do not have soap and then we do not have gloves, we do not have masks.”

“People are scared”

The facility sits just off the state Thruway in Batavia. ICE manages the facility and its medical unit. Security is outsourced to a private firm, AGS Inc., a subsidiary of Akima Global Services.

Detainees are being held for suspected immigration violations. Some of those with previous criminal convictions are segregated, however. Living arrangements vary.

All detainees live in wings, or units, that have common areas, such as small kitchens and seating areas. Some detainees, including many considered higher risk, are consigned to share two-person cells with a shared toilet and sink. Others live in spaces designed to hold up to four people, sleeping in bunk beds. 

The facility also houses an immigration court where judges president over deportation hearings and other legal matters. Conditions there prompted defense lawyers to stage a protest two weeks ago.

The facility also contains 32 isolation cells used for solitary confinement and medical isolation, and a medical unit capable of treating up to three people. This for a population that, of late, ranges from 375 to 400.

These are the settings in which detainees live, sometimes for years. 

One man, a pre-diabetic with hypertension who has been incarcerated for two years after overstaying his visa, told Investigative Post there is no meaningful social distancing inside the facility. He does not see how such measures are even possible, given the facility’s design.

“There is no way, no way, that we would be able to adhere to social distancing,” he said.

Dread and desperation pervade the detention center, detainees told Investigative Post.

Newspapers recount the growing narratives of local struggle. Televisions with CNN and Fox News broadcast the ever-climbing number of infected and dead.

“It’s a very traumatic situation,” one detainee said. “We’re now in a confined situation. You don’t have control over your own life.”

The elderly and ailing detainee, over 60 years old with respiratory issues and a host of other health concerns, said it’s unclear whether the “little hotel bars” of soap detainees receive are antibacterial. 

Joseph Moravec, a lawyer with Prisoner Legal Services of New York and lead attorney in the federal lawsuit, has heard similar accounts. 

“They’re running out of soap, they’re running out of hand sanitizer,” he said during a recent federal court hearing. 

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One of the detainees in the B-2 Unit expressed regret for no longer being able to care for his elderly, disabled parents. 

“I feel terrible,” he said.

He and another man in the unit said many detainees are sneezing, coughing and losing their sense of smell – all symptoms of COVID-19. 

On Wednesday, as news of testing spread, detainees made frequent and frantic calls to family members.

“People are scared, people are angry, people are worried,” one detainee said.

Those concerns apparently extend to guards. The two detainees from B-2 said guards were not entering the unit Wednesday.

Detainees’ sense of desperation is not new.

A short-lived hunger strike began among some detainees in B-2 about two weeks ago, according to one detainee, two attorneys and an immigrant advocate. The detainee told Investigative Post the said protestors called off the strike after being threatened with solitary confinement.

The use of solitary confinement for quarantine, much less punishment, speaks to how “ill-equipped” the detention center is to handle the pandemic, said Jennifer Connor, executive director of Justice for Migrant Families WNY.

No one thinks that we should be treating our sick family and community members by putting them alone in a metal box,” she said.

Federal case proceeding

The federal lawsuit before Vilardo seeks the supervised release of 23 detainees – now 20 – who are over 50 years old or suffer health problems such as heart ailments and respiratory difficulties. Last week he withheld judgment on the request and instead ordered ICE to institute a social distancing plan inside the facility.

Vilardo said his intent is to preserve the rights of detainees while recognizing his “limitations as a judge.” He’s concerned that a release order could set a precedent leading to the release of  every federal prisoner or detainee across the U.S. over age 50. 

“I think it leads there,” Vilardo said during a hearing Tuesday.

Today, he again took no action on the request to release detainees. But Vilardo admonished ICE after being told it has released three detainees by simply dropping them off at a gas station in Batavia without notifying their attorneys or family members.

“The way they’ve been released, based on what I read, is inhuman,” Vilardo said.

The judge ordered ICE to take additional steps, mostly mandating improved social distancing, to safeguard the safety of detainees considered at risk based on standards set by the Center for Disease Control. Attorneys for the plaintiffs had sought to extend those safeguards to a larger pool of detainees.

To lawyers representing the detainees, there’s only one solution.

“There’s no other solution but to release them,” Moravec, of Prisoners Legal Services, told the court today.