COVID-19 infections surging in Georgia immigration detention center

Nationwide, cases in detention centers increased by more than tenfold between December and January
Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia is grappling with a surge in COVID-19 infections amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia is grappling with a surge in COVID-19 infections amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A federal immigration detention center in Southwest Georgia is grappling with a surge in COVID-19 infections amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement records show.

ICE said it was isolating or monitoring 213 detainees with the disease at Stewart Detention Center near Lumpkin as of the end of last month, up from 13 on Dec. 28. That represents 18% of the center’s 1,183 average daily population.

In all, the federal agency has documented 1,407 cases of COVID-19 at Stewart since the pandemic began. The disease has claimed the lives of four detainees at Stewart, the highest number of such deaths at any ICE detention center.

Ricardo Chambers, a 39-year-old Jamaican immigrant who has been in Stewart since August 2020, said COVID-19 is “rampant” there.

“Every day, I pray that I’ll survive and that I will be able to see my family members and that I won’t die here,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They are not taking it seriously.”

Nationwide, active COVID-19 cases jumped by more than tenfold in ICE detention centers between December and January, from 299 to 3,022. In all, 14% of the detainee population had COVID-19 at the end of January. Two detainees have died from the disease since December, one at the El Valle Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas, and one at Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Mississippi.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing ICE in federal court, alleging the agency is denying COVID-19 booster shots for its detainees. One of the ACLU’s five medically vulnerable plaintiffs is Marvin Hernandez Villalobo, a 29-year-old man being held at Stewart whose pre-existing conditions put him at higher risk of complications from COVID. The lawsuit says Villalobo, who is obese and experiences breathing problems at night and blood circulation issues, received two vaccine doses last year and has asked for a booster at Stewart but has not been able to get one. He has already been infected with COVID-19 and “wants to protect his health for his partner and children who depend on him.”

CoreCivic, the Nashville-based corrections company that operates Stewart through an agreement with ICE, said this week the detention center is making vaccines and boosters “readily available to all qualified detainees” and educating them about “the benefits of the vaccine from the first day they arrive and are tested for COVID-19.”

ICE declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit. It also declined to respond to questions emailed to the agency about how many of its detainees have been vaccinated against COVID-19, how many have refused vaccinations and how many have been hospitalized because of the disease. Instead, ICE pointed the AJC to its website, which says the safety of its detainees is one of its highest priorities.

“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency,” ICE’s website says.

This is not the first time ICE’s response to the pandemic has come under criticism. On Jan. 26, two whistleblowers who have investigated ICE detention centers on behalf of the Homeland Security Department’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties urged the agency to immediately offer detainees COVID-19 booster vaccinations.

“ICE’s failure to implement a plan for providing boosters to detained immigrants is inexplicable in light of available science, government public health recommendations, and their widespread availability,” Drs. Scott Allen and Josiah Rich wrote in their letter, which was made public by the Government Accountability Project. “The failure to act with alacrity has contributed to the number of confirmed COVID cases skyrocketing since the emergence of the omicron variant.”

Last year, the Homeland Security Department’s Office of the Inspector General reviewed records and surveillance video from nine of ICE’s detention centers, none of which are in Georgia. Among other things, the report the office released in September says ICE’s COVID-19 testing for its staff and detainees was insufficient and that ICE personnel and detainees did not consistently wear face masks or socially distance.

ICE concurred with the report’s recommendations, while highlighting that it is encouraging its staff and detainees to wear masks and maintain social distancing. ICE also underscored that it is screening newly arriving detainees and isolating those with symptoms associated with COVID-19.

A majority of the infections at Stewart were detected among detainees as they arrived there, said Matthew Davio, a spokesman for CoreCivic, the company that manages Stewart. As of Wednesday, 134 CoreCivic employees who work at Stewart had recovered from COVID-19, according to the company’s website, and there were six active cases among staff members. The company declined to say whether any of its employees at Stewart have been hospitalized or have died because of the disease.

Franco Clement, a Liberian immigrant who has been detained at the Stewart since March 2020, said in an interview with the AJC that many fellow detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been held together in a neighboring space. Clement said he didn’t feel adequately protected because the same staff who entered that space also visited his own. He also alleged that new detainees who arrived at the center were not tested for the disease.

“The whole place is contaminated,” said Clement, who suspects ICE is undercounting infections in Stewart. “I’m scared for my life.”

Detainees have also reported that Stewart has been inconsistent in how it isolates those with COVID-19, said Erin Argueta, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. Some have been separated for 10 days, she said, while others have been allowed to join certain activities.

In a sworn statement the ACLU shared with the AJC, Stewart detainee Blanca Isabel Rivera Morales said she first asked for a booster in early December and was told it was not available. The 48-year-old woman, who has diabetes and hypertension, received two doses of the Moderna vaccine at Stewart in April and June of 2021.

On Jan. 12, the same day she submitted a written request for a third shot, she experienced a headache, coughed and suffered from body aches. She told medical personnel about her symptoms but wasn’t given a COVID-19 test. It wasn’t until four days later, when Rivera Morales was feeling worse, that a doctor tested her. The result came back positive.

“I feel angry and frustrated,” she said. “If Stewart Detention Center had provided me with the booster shot I had requested, it would have reduced my risk of getting COVID-19.”

By the numbers

Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 infections amid the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant. These numbers are cumulative from the beginning of the pandemic until Feb. 2:

Confirmed COVID-19 cases

Stewart Detention Center: 1,407

ICE detention centers nationwide: 38,657

ICE detainees who have died after testing positive for COVID-19 while in custody

Stewart Detention Center: 4

ICE detention centers nationwide: 11

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.