An immigrant detainee looks from his segregation cell at the Adelanto Detention Center in California's Inland Empire. Detainees may be put in these cells for fighting and other disturbances. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, some detainees say they've been forced to quarantine there. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Alton Edmondson is no longer in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but the Jamaican construction worker can’t shake off the feeling of being locked up alone.
As COVID-19 sickened dozens of people at a for-profit immigration detention center in Bakersfield this summer, staffers put Edmondson in isolation for weeks, including placing him in a cell used for disciplinary segregation that detainees call “the hole,” court records show.
ICE officials said Edmondson, who repeatedly tested negative for the coronavirus, was being quarantined and housed apart from other detainees for his own protection.
But to Edmondson, the three-week isolation he said he experienced amounted to punishing solitary confinement. Officials at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center locked him up for about 23 hours per day, he said.
“I was depressed. I felt helpless,” said Edmondson, who has lived in this country for nearly 20 years and has three U.S.-born sons. “They served me food through a hole in the door. They made me feel like I’m a terrorist or a murderer.”
Edmondson’s experience is echoed by other ICE detainees, whose reports to advocates and in court records suggest widespread use of solitary confinement as COVID-19 proliferated in immigration detention centers around the country.
“Based on evidence we’ve gathered, this is the practice that they are allowing their contractors to use,” said Elizabeth Jordan, an attorney with the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center in Denver, who represents plaintiffs in Fraihat v. ICE, a class-action lawsuit challenging ICE detention conditions, including the use of punitive segregation.
“This is really dangerous because it places a serious strain on people's mental health,” added Jordan, who said those held in solitary confinement conditions include some immigrants who were sick with COVID-19. “It’s not what public health officials have in mind when they suggest separating people out.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 6,300 immigrants held by ICE, including hundreds in California, according to the agency.
ICE requires that immigrants kept in isolation for medical reasons must not be treated as if they are in solitary confinement, even if placed in the same cells used for disciplinary reasons.
But detainees report being locked by themselves for more than 20 hours a day as a means of quarantine during the pandemic, advocates say, and some immigrants refuse to disclose their COVID-19 symptoms out of fear of being thrown in “the hole.”
A Week in a Windowless Cell With No Bed
On Aug. 4, at least six men at Mesa Verde’s Dorm B were confirmed to have the coronavirus, and staffers cleared the dorm to house only positive cases. Edmondson expected guards to move him to one of three other dorms in the facility with other detainees who had tested negative. Instead, they took him to an intake cell.
The windowless room, used by staff to interview new detainees, was very small, with a toilet but no bed, he said.
“It was horrible. I didn’t want to be there,” Edmondson said. “No fresh air. I’ve never been in a place like that for so long in my life.”
Guards brought in a TV and DVD-player for Edmondson to watch movies on. But he was forced to sleep on a mat on the floor and had no access to the commissary, which he depended on to comply with his plant-based, Rastafarian diet.
People must not be kept in such a hold room for more than 12 hours, according to ICE’s standards. But Edmondson said officials left him there for seven days.
Next, guards confined him in a Restricted Housing Unit (known as a RHU) for two more weeks, according to ICE reports to a district court in San Francisco.
Edmondson said he only had his Bible to read. Sometimes, he stood by a small window on his cell’s metal door to watch a TV in the hall outside, he said.
Immigration officials did not explain why he could not live in a dorm with others who had also tested negative, according to Edmondson and his attorney.
The GEO Group, which owns and operates Mesa Verde, referred questions to ICE. An ICE spokesman declined to comment on Edmondson’s case.
More ICE Detainees Isolated During Pandemic
Since June, ICE facilities have been isolating detainees with coronavirus symptoms and placing new arrivals in quarantine for 14 days, according to the agency’s guidance on COVID-19.
But detainees are usually housed in dorms; most detention centers only have a few units where people can be isolated for disciplinary or other reasons, such as medical isolation, according to advocates and researchers who have visited ICE facilities in California and other states.
Mesa Verde, where Edmondson was detained, has at least one medical isolation room and at least one intake cell, and three RHUs that have been generally full since August, when ICE began reporting on the facility’s COVID-19 outbreak to a district court. The facility has a maximum capacity of 400 detainees.
ICE requires that during the pandemic, individuals quarantined in cells used for solitary confinement get regular visits from medical staff, and have access to mental health services and other benefits.
“Make efforts to provide similar access to radio, TV, reading materials, personal property, and commissary as would be available in individuals’ regular housing units,” reads the agency’s Pandemic Response Requirements.
But advocates say that has not been happening. As part of the Fraihat case, Jordan presented a federal court in Los Angeles with sworn declarations from two men held in solitary confinement during the pandemic.
On May 28, Oscar Perez Aguirre returned to the Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Colorado from a local hospital where he was treated for COVID-19. He said he was held for two weeks in a solitary confinement unit that was filthy and freezing.
Perez Aguirre said he was so sick he couldn’t stand up, but he was not seen by a doctor or a mental health staffer while in isolation. A nurse did come by daily to take his temperature and blood pressure, he said.
“While I was in disciplinary segregation ... I felt really down and did not have anything to do,” said Perez Aguirre, 57. “I asked for cards (to pass the time) and was told I could not have any.”
Ruben Mencias Soto had a similar experience in May after he was treated for chest pain at a hospital and returned to California’s largest immigrant detention center in the Inland Empire city of Adelanto. A COVID-19 outbreak at the privately run facility has already infected more than 120 detainees and is growing.
“I am locked in a cell by myself approximately 23 hours a day,” said Mencias Soto, 37. “I am very worried that I am going to have more heart issues and I will die without them noticing.”
Both the Aurora and Adelanto detention facilities are also run by The GEO Group, the Florida-based private prison firm.
An ICE spokesman declined to comment on the court declarations by Mencias Soto or Perez Aguirre about their quarantine, citing the lawsuit.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot comment further due to pending litigation,” said ICE spokesman Jonathan Moor in a statement. “However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the litigation.”
The advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants reports that dozens of people detained at several ICE facilities have called the organization’s hotline saying they were afraid to disclose COVID-19 symptoms for fear of being isolated. Other callers who tested positive said they were held for 14 days in solitary confinement without appropriate medical care, according to the organization.
“COVID-19 has exacerbated issues that have long existed within the U.S. immigration detention system, which has had an impact on the mental health of those in custody,” said Rebekah Entralgo, a spokeswoman for the organization, in a statement.
“Resources like phone calls, outside recreational time, and timely meals — which are difficult to come by even under normal circumstances — are severely limited during the pandemic, which adds to the isolation of immigration detention,” Entralgo added.
Suicide in Quarantine
The United Nations has argued that prolonged solitary confinement for more than 15 days should be banned.
The practice should never be used on juveniles or people with mental disabilities because it can amount to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, warned in 2011.
The stress and suffering of solitary confinement can also lead to the onset or worsening of mental illness, researchers say.
The strain of isolation was particularly detrimental to Choung Woong Ahn, a detainee who committed suicide at the Mesa Verde detention center in May, according to his attorney Trevor Kosmo, with Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland.
Ahn, a 74-year-old man from South Korea, killed himself in the shower of a medical isolation unit while in quarantine after he returned from a hospital. ICE knew Ahn had a history of suicide attempts, Kosmo said, but failed to continuously monitor him, as required for at-risk detainees.
“I believe that my client, Mr. Ahn, died due to ICE’s negligence,” Kosmo said. “And because they quarantined him in solitary confinement without giving him the one-on-one observation that he was required to have under their own detention standards.”
Kosmo, who also represents Alton Edmondson, said ICE does not need to lock up people who are awaiting immigration court hearings, and the pandemic has highlighted long-standing problems with detention.
“It's completely inhumane to put people in a windowless room for 23 hours to quarantine them,” he said. “If they can't properly quarantine them, they need to release everyone.”
Ahn’s family and Edmondson could both sue The GEO Group under a new California law signed last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom. AB 3228 makes it easier for individuals to bring legal charges in state court against private detention companies for failing to abide by the terms of their contracts.
Supporters of AB 3228 say the new law provides a path to state-level accountability for violations of ICE’s standards at for-profit facilities.
ICE’s History With Solitary Confinement
Concerns about ICE’s use of solitary confinement predate the pandemic.
A recent congressional investigation found that ICE regularly contracts with facilities that are “poorly equipped” to meet the agency’s detention guidelines, and that ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, rarely enforce corrections of identified problems.
The report by the House Committee on Homeland Security also found that detainees are often denied adequate medical and mental health care, and that ICE facilities “improperly use segregation as retaliation,” sometimes on detainees who have participated in hunger strikes to protest detention conditions.
“Unfortunately, ICE appears to prioritize obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees in its custody,” concluded the committee staffers who visited eight detention centers, including two in California and interviewed more than 400 immigrants held there.
An ICE spokeswoman defended the agency and said it will review the committee’s report. She added that ICE’s “aggressive inspections program” includes targeted site visits and independent third-party compliance reviews, and that the agency has made improvements to detention conditions based on recommendations by the DHS Office of the Inspector General.
ICE “is fully committed to the health and safety of those in our care,” said Stacey Daniels, who directs public affairs at the agency. “However, it is clear this one-sided review of our facilities was done to tarnish our agency’s reputation, as opposed to actually reviewing the care detainees receive while in our custody.”
ICE refers to the practice of isolating a detainee from the general population as “segregation,” and allows it for disciplinary or other reasons, including for a vulnerable detainee’s own protection. Facility administrators are required to notify ICE field office directors when detainees are segregated for 14 days or longer, according to the agency’s standards.
Between 2013 to 2017, ICE facilities nationwide logged more than 5,300 cases of segregation that lasted two weeks or more, according to Caitlin Patler, an assistant professor of sociology at UC Davis who analyzed the incident reports. One person was isolated for more than two years, she said.
“It's a really, really punitive experience, regardless of the reason for someone's placement into solitary confinement,” Patler said.
Patler was troubled to find that people with mental illness were overrepresented in ICE segregation cases. And immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean — with majority Black populations — experienced a quarter of all the incidents, though they comprised only 4% of the detainee population.
“There might be some really problematic racialized practices happening within detention facilities where a situation involving a Black detained person results in solitary confinement much more frequently than we would expect based on their portion of the detained population,” said Patler, who co-authored a study on the issue soon to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Punishment and Society.
An ICE spokesman declined to comment on Patler’s findings, saying they haven't been published yet.
ICE is currently jailing about 20,000 people across the country, compared to about 38,000 immigrants who were in custody in late March. About half of those detained have criminal convictions, while the rest have pending criminal charges or have only violated immigration laws.
From Plea Deal to Detention
Alton Edmondson had been jailed for 14 months in Nevada County, California, when he pled guilty to a serious felony conviction for assault with a firearm during a robbery.
Throughout his criminal proceedings, Edmondson, who is Black, insisted that he was wrongly accused of the offense. He maintains his arrest stemmed from a racially-motivated traffic stop in a county where only about 1% of the population is Black.
The criminal court had granted him bail, but he and his family could not afford to pay it, he said, and he remained behind bars.
“The whole thing was racial profiling,” said Edmondson, who was visiting a friend in California when he was arrested. “I was innocent.”
When they arrested Edmondson in Nov. 2018, sheriff’s deputies did not find a firearm in the vehicle he was in, and the charges were filed based on a dubious eyewitness identification, according to court documents submitted by San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The office sued, along with the ACLU and other legal aid nonprofits, to force ICE to release vulnerable detainees from Mesa Verde during the pandemic.
Edmondson was told that if he lost his criminal trial, he faced up to 12 years of incarceration, but if he took the plea deal, he would be let out in four months, court records show.
“Because of the racial demographics of the county, and pervasive racial bias among the likely juror pool, his attorney advised that his chances of winning at trial were slim,” according to the request for Edmond’s release from ICE detention filed by Genna Beier, a San Francisco deputy public defender.
On May 26, as Edmondson was released from the Nevada County Jail, ICE officials arrested him and detained him at Mesa Verde.
Edmondson said he didn’t understand at the time that pleading guilty to the felony would lead to deportation proceedings and losing his green card, which has allowed him to lawfully work and live in the U.S. for nearly 20 years. But ICE disputes that.
“He signed an agreement acknowledging that he understood the nature of the crimes and allegations and the consequences of his plea,” said agency officials opposing his release, adding that Edmondson had two prior misdemeanor offenses related to marijuana possession and a DUI.
But on Sept. 23, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered ICE to release Edmondson, who has asthma, along with more than 140 other detainees at Mesa Verde, where COVID-19 has infected nearly 60 detainees.
Chhabria’s release orders weigh each person’s health risk in detention against the likelihood that he or she will endanger the community or will fail to show up for immigration court proceedings if released.
Edmondson is quarantining at a hotel in Bakersfield until Oct. 7, following the judge’s orders. He then plans to go home to Georgia, where two of his three sons live. The youngest is just 6, he said.
“I feel great, I feel freedom,” he said. “I want to see my kids. Missed them a lot.”
Edmondson said he hopes that talking about his experience of isolation at Mesa Verde will make ICE detention more humane for others.
“That’s not right the way they treated me,” he said. “I think it’s very important for people to hear my story.”