The allegation that infected detainees had been released into the community from the Imperial Regional Detention Facility (IRDF) was first leveled on March 23, 2021, by Minority Humanitarian Foundation (MHF), a nonprofit immigrant advocacy based in San Diego.
“There were three straight days about a week ago where they released someone who was COVID positive here in public and drove away,” said Mark Lane, the founder of MHF.
All told, he said, there were twelve infected people released, all of whom were “now in quarantine with the Imperial County Public Health Department (ICPHD).”
An agreement has since been reached to turnover to ICPHD any infected detainees released from IRDF. The 782-bed facility is owned and run for ICE by Utah-based Management and Training Corp. (MTC). It is the third-largest private prison operator in the U.S., with annual revenue of more than $665 million in its most recent fiscal year.
The facility had until March 31, 2021, to correct violations of detention standards “that threatened the health, safety and rights” of detainees, as outlined in a blistering December 2020 letter from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of ICE’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
OIG based its findings on a surprise inspection at IRDF in February 2020, when it found 16 detainees were held in segregation “for prolonged periods of 22 to 23 hours a day”—11 of whom had been there continuously for over 60 days, and two of those for over 300 days.
Further, IRDF had not been reviewing whether a need for continuing segregation was present, and records for segregation recreation had not been accurately kept.
It was also found that medical checks on detainees in segregation occurred during the night, while most of them were asleep, and these checks lasted for only ten to 15 minutes.
“By not thoroughly and appropriately conducting medical checks, IRDF staff are not able to adequately identify and address mental health or other medical concerns affecting segregated detainees,” investigators said.
MTC officials responded that the facility was short on staff of registered nurses. “The facility staffing plan shows there should be nine full-time nurses and one part-time nurse,” investigators agreed, “but there were only six full-time nurses on staff, covering three shifts.”
Investigators also “determined that parts of the facility were in poor condition,” noting “mold, rust, and peeling paint in showers in detainee housing areas.” Required toiletries, especially lotions, were not being given to detainees.
Jail garments and shoes issued were “ill-fitting, stained, and damaged.” Detainees reported complaining of “torn and deteriorating mattresses, but the facility had not replaced them.” Bad linens were also torn, stained and dirty.
“In the food preparation and storage areas,” investigators found “expired frozen tortillas and turkey bologna, and moldy zucchini.”
In addition, they found that “medical grievances and responses were not properly documented” and that “ICE communication with detainees was limited.”
Requests for medical assistance and grievances are both submitted via electronic tablets furnished to detainees. But many of these “e-tablets” malfunction, leaving the requests filed on them unaddressed. Often the request is closed after it is erroneously marked either formally or informally resolved. The subcontractor who provides them, Talton Communications, was charged with fixing the problem devices.
Medical department supervisors are supposed to maintain treatment requests and grievance logs and to make back-up paper medical treatment forms (in the event of e-tablet failures) easily available to detainees.
ICE pays $155.65 per day for each detainee held at IRDF, a price that MTC says is so low that it is largely responsible for the deficiencies OIG found. But MTC can’t raise the price because California law requires private prison operators to charge at least ten percent less than the comparable cost of detention in a publicly operated facility. Reportedly, though, ICE and MTC agreed to a half-dozen operational changes recommended by OIG staff.
IRDF is part of a network of 200 jails and prisons in which ICE holds immigrant detainees—more facilities than the nation’s two largest prison systems, the federal Bureau of Prisons and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Unlike those two systems, though, ICE does not own its facilities, the land they sit on, nor does it supply the guards, medical and administrative personnel required to operate them.
Instead, ICE contracts with for-profit private prison corporations like MTC, who operate under ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). The agency relies on its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division to make sure these are adhered to. In a heady alphabet soup, ICE said its ERO was tasked with bringing IRDF up to the agency’s PBNDS by the March 31, 2021 deadline imposed by OIG.
In fiscal year 2020, over a half-million immigrant detainees were booked into ICE facilities, which held an average of more than 40,000 on any given day.
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