NEWARK, N.J, – U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker (both D-N.J.) joined a group of colleagues in calling for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General (IG) to conduct a full assessment, including site inspections, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities nationwide to evaluate whether the facilities’ operations, management, standards, and conditions have adapted to address the threat of COVID-19 to both the staff and detainees.
The letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari cites reports from across the country that staff at ICE’s detention facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are working without masks or gloves, detainees are not provided adequate access to hygiene products like soap and sanitizer, and facilities are doing little to accommodate social distancing practices.
“As the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continue to climb, we share the unease that public health experts have expressed about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in congregate settings, like detention facilities,” the senators wrote to Inspector General Cuffari. “Not only are detainees at higher risk because they are in such close proximity to others, people in detention and incarceration are more likely to have other preexisting health conditions, which places them at even higher risk for mortality from the virus. Further, outbreaks inside congregate settings often affect employees who then can spread the disease into their broader communities.”
In the letter, the senators request that “In order to mitigate the spread of this virus in its congregate settings, we request that, similar to the Justice Department Inspector General’s remote inspections of BOP facilities, you expeditiously conduct site inspections of ICE facilities that have identified positive cases among staff or detainees, and at facilities in geographic areas that have emerged as hot spots. Second, we ask that you immediately examine and assess the sufficiency of policies and practices in place at each facility to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Joining Sens. Menendez and Booker in sending this letter were Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Full text of the letter can be found here and below.
Dear Inspector General Cuffari:
We write to seek your review of concerns with the current conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, we request you conduct site visits to ICE facilities to identify and assess whether the facilities’ operations, management, standards, and conditions have sufficiently changed to address the threat of COVID-19 to both the staff and detained population. Public health requires that policies and practices be in place now to mitigate viral outbreaks within these facilities.
Reports have revealed that as of April 16, 2020, ICE had 32,300 people in detention. To date, 287 detainees, 35 ICE employees at detention facilities, and 88 ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. It has also come to our attention that an unknown number of contract employees assigned to ICE detention facilities have tested positive, and ICE has even acknowledged that, sadly, some contract employees have died from it. As the numbers of detainees and detention facility staff infected with COVID-19 continue to climb, we share the unease that public health experts have expressed about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the congregate settings, like detention facilities. Not only are detainees at higher risk because they are in such close proximity to other, people in detention and incarceration are more likely to have other preexisting health conditions, which places them at even higher risk for mortality from the virus. Further, outbreaks inside congregate settings often affect employees and spread into their broader communities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided guidance to correctional and detention facilities for operational preparedness, prevention, and management of COVID-19, which include developing an emergency plan in addition to intensified cleaning, disinfecting, and reinforcement of hygiene practices. ICE also recently published its own set of COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements on its website, which reflect recommendations from the CDC. Even with these guidelines, detention facilities are not following best practices. There are reports across the country of detention facility staff working without masks or gloves in facilities that have confirmed cases. Additionally, these reports follow detainees’ inability to practice social distancing, and instances where ICE has even failed to provide detainees with soap to wash their hands.
Recently, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General initiated remote inspections of Bureau of Prisons facilities to ensure they are following best practices to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus after hundreds of federal inmates tested positive for the virus. In an effort to confront the health risks of the pandemic, some facilities have swiftly moved to decrease prison populations.
In order to mitigate the spread of this virus in its congregate settings, we request that you conduct site visits as soon as possible at ICE facilities that have identified positive cases among staff or detainees, and at facilities in areas that have emerged as hot spots. Second, we ask that you examine and assess the sufficiency of policies and practices in place at each facility to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As you conduct your inspections, we request that you:
1. Contract with medical and public health experts so that these experts can accompany your team of investigators during the course of the inspection.
2. Identify whether detention facilities are adequately tracking potential and actual COVID-19 cases; evaluate whether detention facilities continue to hold medically vulnerable individuals and in what settings; and assess the capabilities of each facility chosen for inspection. In these assessments, please determine the adequacy of each facility’s onsite healthcare capabilities, and whether the facilities have the capacity to evaluate and test detainees, ICE employees and contract employees for potential illness.
3. Review ICE’s COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements, as well as ICE’s standards for detention, including the Performance Based National Detention Standards 2011 (revised December 2016), to identify any concerns and ways ICE and its contractors can improve current protocols being implemented to meet guidelines set by the CDC. In an effort to promote transparency, we ask that you require ICE to place any and all protocols addressing facility practices and protocols addressing COVID-19 on ICE’s website and make them available to the public.
4. Evaluate the impact of detainee transfers across detention facilities and general population management practices on mitigation efforts to contain COVID-19.
While nearly all of ICE's federal detention centers nationwide are operated by third party contractors, ICE bears ultimate responsibility for managing and conducting oversight over these contractors and the policies and practices the contractors are developing to manage this pandemic. We appreciate your guidance and prompt attention to the issues we have raised, and we look forward to your assessment of ICE detention facilities.
October 16, 2020