Infections spike among immigrant detainees

Number of ICE detainees jumped from 13 to 46 over the weekend; Wende state prison reports 23 inmate infections

Large numbers of detained immigrants and state inmates in Western New York facilities are starting to test positive for COVID-19.

Infections have mushroomed from 13 on Friday to 46 on Tuesday among immigrant detainees at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia. That’s more positive test results than at any of the 25 detention facilities operated nationwide by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Twenty-three inmates have tested positive at the Wende Correctional Facility in Alden. Eleven of the 23 people have recovered, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Only two other state prisons — Sing Sing and Fishkill — have more confirmed cases, 44 and 46, respectively.

“Yes, we are convicted of crimes against society but we weren’t sentenced to die — at least not here in New York State,” James Williams, a Wende inmate, wrote earlier this month in an email obtained by Investigative Post.

No inmates have tested positive in Erie and Niagara county jails. However, jail authorities have tested only two of 787 inmates, both of them in Erie County. 

A larger number of jail employees have been tested; nine have been confirmed as carriers of the disease in Erie County, two in Niagara. ICE refuses to release information on the staff at the Batavia facility.

Across New York State, 794 prison employees have contracted coronavirus. That’s nearly four times the 211 inmates who have tested positive, five of whom have died. There’s no breakout available for infections among employees at individual prisons.

The situation appears most dire at the ICE detention center in Batavia, where infections account for 21 percent of the cases at ICE facilities nationwide.

The mood is quiet and anxious inside, one detainee told Investigative Post. The man is assigned to B-2, a dormitory-style unit with bunk spaces and a central, communal area with tables and phones. He is one of 48 detainees in the unit who were tested, 27 of whom were positive, according to documents submitted Monday to the federal courts. 

He is one of the infected.

“I just take it one day of at a time,” he said, “praying every morning and every night.”

A submission to the federal courts signed by U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said 76 of the 319 detainees currently held at the facility have been tested. 

“The increase in the number of confirmed cases is largely the result of testing the entirety of the B-2 unit,” Kennedy said. “The increased number of confirmed cases is also a result of the widespread testing being performed at the [facility] in general.”

The facility has limited treatment capacity. There’s a medical bay with three beds in three rooms. According to ICE, none of those beds are occupied right now.

Instead, the sick are quarantined in units inside the detention center which hold only detainees who have tested positive for the virus.

The growing number of diagnoses follows alarms raised by detainees, attorneys and advocates early in the pandemic. They cautioned that the facility was not equipped to handle a severe outbreak or to implement social distancing practices to curb the spread of the virus.

Five detainees spoke with Investigative Post by phone earlier this month. They said they believed social distancing was near impossible. A pair of them were housed in unit B-2, one of the nine wings in the facility. They described dozens of sick men exhibiting various symptoms of COVID-19, including dry coughs and bloodshot eyes. 

In a statement,  Jennifer Connor, executive director of a local advocacy group, Justice for Migrant Families WNY, blamed the decisions of Thomas Feeley, ICE’s field office director, for the spread of the disease.

“Feeley has endangered the lives of everyone in the detention facility in Batavia, both detained people and workers,” she said. 

Connor spotlighted other concerns, saying the facility was “exporting” the virus through recent transfers of detainees to other facilities and deportation of detainees to other countries. 

“He needs to come up with a plan, backed by financial and logistical resources to address this public health crisis, and do what’s right: responsibly release people to their communities where they can receive real care and support,” Connor said of Feeley. 

ICE officials did not respond to specific questions from Investigative Post, but said the sick had “been quarantined and are receiving care.”

Lawyers for 23 detainees filed suit in federal court last month seeking their clients’ release on the grounds they were at high risk of contracting COVID-19. Three have subsequently been released.

The lead attorney in the case, Joe Moravec, of Prisoners Legal Services of New York, said it’s in the public interest to release those in civil detention. Not doing so risks unnecessarily jeopardizing the wellbeing of people in custody, as well as overwhelming the detention center’s medical resources and those of nearby hospitals. 

“There is a huge, huge recognition in the criminal justice system that people who are medically vulnerable who can’t be cared for and who don’t pose a threat to public safety … shouldn’t have to stay in prison and wait to get sick,” he said. 

“The government has discretion to release everyone there if they felt compelled to do so,” he said of the Batavia facility. “They’re choosing not to in the face of a deadly, highly contagious virus. That system, that decision, is unconscionable to me.” 

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The lack of testing for inmates in Erie and Niagara county jails is becoming more and more of an issue, and contrasts with tests being administered to jail employees.

In Erie County, the Sheriff’s Office Correctional Health Division arranged testing for 27 employees through the county Health Department for any worker showing symptoms of COVID-19. In addition, the medical team has put together an exposure risk assessment for staff members that determines the likelihood of contracting the virus and how to address it.

Meanwhile, only two inmates have been tested, leading some people to challenge the Sheriff’s Office’s assertion that there are no cases inside the facilities.

“If the guards have it, it’s crazy to think that it’s not amongst the inmates,” said Mark Sacha, a defense attorney. “They’re sitting on a powder keg.”

“We have confirmed cases in that facility through the deputies,” Brian Dickman, the president of Teamsters Local 264, which represents deputies working in the Erie County Holding Center, told Investigative Post earlier this month.

The potential for contracting the virus on the job prompted the union to ask the county to give jail workers hazard pay or comp time. According to Dickman, County Executive Mark Poloncarz has rejected the request, leaving the union president “disappointed” and feeling Poloncarz has “turned his back on frontline essential employees.”

Others in county government continue to look into jail conditions. Howard Johnson, an Erie County legislator who oversees the Public Safety Committee, receives weekly updates from Tom Diina, the jail superintendent.

“I can’t speak about why there’s a lack of testing in there, but there’s a lack of testing everywhere in Erie County,” Johnson said. “It’s no fault to anyone about the lack of testing. This came out of nowhere and we didn’t have the testing in place.”

Advocates are looking at what other correctional centers are doing and calling for more testing of inmates. An Ohio facility began conducting COVID-19 tests on every person who is incarcerated and found 73 percent of the population was infected.

“Because we are testing everyone — including those who are not showing symptoms — we are getting positive test results on individuals who otherwise would have never been tested because they were asymptomatic,” the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction wrote in a report last updated Sunday.

New York advocates are calling on the state to implement wider testing protocols across all 52 state prison facilities.

 “Thousands more incarcerated New Yorkers will fall victim to the virus unless the governor immediately acts,” advocacy group members wrote in a statement sent to Investigative Post.