FARMVILLE, Va. (WRIC) — Lawyers representing a group of immigrant detainees at the ICE Detention Center in Farmville claim the facility overestimated their ability to handle detainee transfers, resulting in a spike of COVID-19 cases.

On June 2, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Farmville Detention Center accepted a transfer of 74 detainees from Florida and Arizona citing an “operational need of ICE.” The facility could have refused the transferees, but Jeffrey Crawford, Director of Farmville Detention Center, said in a court filing, “There was no indication that ICA Farmville could not accommodate the needs of these transferees at that time.”

Crawford added that refusing the transfer would be impractical because the facility would still be required to accept the transferees until ICE found an alternative location, which could take weeks.

Because of the size of the group, Farmville said in the court filing that the transfers did not undergo the usual 14-day isolation period at the Caroline County ICE Detention Center. Instead, the transferred detainees were taken directly to the Farmville Detention Center.

Farmville ICE Detention Center located in Farmville, Virginia. (Photo: Paul Caffrey/ICE via DVIDS)

“Farmville seemed to think that they had everything under control — that they would somehow be able to prevent the spread when they accepted large groups of transfers from Arizona and Florida and clearly that was not possible because of where we are today,” Adina Appelbaum, an attorney working in the Immigration Impact Lab at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, told 8News.

A declaration from Crawford, in response to a lawsuit by CAIR, states that he asked ICE about the level of exposure to COVID-19 at the transferees’ previous facilities. ICE reportedly told Crawford that there were no active cases at the Arizona facility and that Florida had very few cases.

However, during intake pre-screening, Farmville’s medical staff found that 51 of 74 transfers had COVID-19. Crawford claims that none of the 74 transfers were exposed to the general population.

“Regarding the transfers, this is absolutely why there is an active outbreak in Farmville,” Appelbaum told 8News.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told 8News in a statement on July 14 that Immigration Centers of Americ (ICA) Farmville offered COVID-19 testing to all detainees from July 1 to 3. According to ICE, 359 people were tested of which 268 have tested positive, 20 have tested negative, 71 have pending results, and one declined to be tested.

According to the ICE COVID-19 data, there are 315 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Farmville Detention Center. The total number of people detained at Farmville is 360. That means nearly 90 percent of the population has COVID-19.

8News asked Jeffrey Crawford, Director of Farmville Detention Center a series of questions regarding the increase of COVID-19 cases. He directed our questions to ICE Public Affairs. In regards to Farmville, an ICE spokesperson released the following statement on July 14 to 8News:

The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities. During COVID-19, ICE has taken important steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in its detention centers the agency, including the use of expanded voluntary COVID-19 testing for detainees in the agency’s custody.

Since the emergence of COVID-19, ICA Farmville Detention Center in Farmville, Virginia, has ramped up its efforts to protect and care for detainees in its custody by providing face masks, procuring additional handwashing stations and most recently, administering comprehensive testing of all detainees.

ICA Farmville offered testing to all detainees from July 1 to 3 to ascertain the scope of COVID-19 cases at the facility. During that time, 359 detainees were tested, of which 268 have tested positive, 20 have tested negative, 71 have pending results, and one declined to be tested. The majority of those who tested positive are asymptomatic, but are being closely monitored and receiving appropriate medical care. Currently, three detainees are hospitalized and in stable condition. Detainees who have tested negative will be retested and are being held separately from positive detainees.

Medical checks are done twice daily, including a temperature screening and medication disbursement. Every detainee who needs medical attention is being seen. Farmville staff have worked diligently to keep detainees informed of the developing situation as it evolves through education and updates from medical staff on coronavirus symptoms and how their care and custody will be managed.”

ICE continues to incorporate the Centers for Disease Control’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency.”

Kaitlyn Pote,  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 

On July 16, 8News received a new letter from Warner and Kaine to Homeland Security Secretary and ICE calling for the immediate halt to all transfer among detention centers. Warner and Kaine’s letter also asks ICE to explain in detail how ICE tracks COVID-19 cases in detention facilities, as well as if it is notifying state and local health experts when a detainee who tested positive for COVID-19 is released.

No where to go

Dorm room at Farmville ICE Detention Center (Photo: CAIR Coalition April Lawsuit)

Farmville Detention Center is an all-adult male facility and the majority of the detainees are Latinos.

One ICE detainee in Farmville said they noticed new people coming into the facility in June and that they were concerned about the guards going back and forth between new transfers and people already detained, explained Lorna Julien, an attorney working with Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition who represents many ICE detainees at the Farmville facility.

“It definitely spread,” Julien said. “And when it did spread, our clients were just all together – they couldn’t do anything about it.”

CAIR attorneys Julien and Appelbaum said the Farmville Detention Center has more cases than ICE is reporting. ICE explained that there is a slight delay in the number of confirmed cases appearing on their COVID-19 webpage because all data must be validated before being reported online.

Detainees have shared their experiences with their attorneys saying that there is a lack of social distancing and isolation space, and that many are denied proper medical care if they contract COVID-19.

“Detainees sleep right next to each other in the dorms making it impossible to isolate or quarantine when they start to exhibit coronavirus symptoms,” said Julien.

Two of Julien’s clients reside in separate dorms. In one of the dorms, her client said that every single person is sick with COVID-19. According to Julien, her client started to display symptoms of COVID-19 on June 18. Some days later, he was then moved to an “isolation room,” where he stayed a little over a week. Her client later tested positive for COVID-19 and was returned to his original dorm.

Julien claims that the detention center packed isolation rooms with people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

“When my client told me he was taken into isolation, he was actually put into a room with another person who was very, very sick, showing COVID symptoms,” Julien said. “My client was moved into that isolation room before he was even tested. And the other person who was exhibiting symptoms had not been tested at the time that they were put together into that small cell.”

Detainees continue to express frustration with treatment at the Farmville Detention Center. One client told attorneys Appelbaumn and Julien that they feel like they have been left there to die. Another said he screamed for help for 10 minutes, but then had to stop because he was too sick and no one came.

One of Julien’s clients has been in detention at Farmville since February pending an appeal. He told her he feels unsafe and scared because he is detained with people showing severe symptoms. He has been tested for COVID-19 and is awaiting the results.

“There was one ICE official who went into the dorm where he was staying and requested anyone to put their name onto a list so that they could be deported. And my client, his case is pending, it is in the appeals phase, he is literally just waiting for us to submit briefs, hopefully, to fight the government’s appeal, and he put his name on that list. Because he wanted to be deported, because he is terrified,” Julien said.

‘This is a humanitarian — a human rights issue’

Appelbaum said that ICE detention centers have been on notice since the beginning of the pandemic when its own public health experts were warning about the possibility of outbreaks.

“Inability to social distance, the effect of transfers, on exacerbating outbreaks. They’ve been on notice of all of this. Yet they have continued to have this very dangerous behavior of moving people around the country and exposing people,” Appelbaum stated.

CAIR lawyers told 8News as a result of COVID-19, reports involving the use of force are also on the rise. At the Farmville detention center, there have been at least two incidents of pepper spray deployed.

“There’s been an overall issue of violence being used against people who are very sick — causing people to get more sick or having trouble breathing because of the pepper spray. Farmville has been putting people who are very sick into medical isolation in very poor conditions,” Appelbaum said.

Jeffrey Crawford’s declaration to the court confirms two incidents of pepper spray deployed on people detained at the facility.

“On June 20, 2020, several detainees from Dorm 2 were taken to Dorm 9 after their COVID-19 tests returned positive. Three of the detainees refused to remain in the new dorm, demanding that they be placed elsewhere. They became violent, and an officer was forced to deploy pepper spray on two of the detainees to diffuse the situation,” the declaration stated.

On July 1, Crawford authorized the use of pepper spray after “four of the detainees picked up chairs and used them as weapons against the officers.”

The lawyers at CAIR have filed another lawsuit against ICE, very different from the one filed in April. This one focuses just on the recent outbreak at the Farmville Detention Center and asks for the release of people who are most vulnerable to serious illness because of medical conditions and age.

CAIR is also submitting requests to deportation officers for their clients, letting them know their clients have an underlying health condition that would put them at a higher risk of suffering complications or death from COVID-19. They have also been sending humanitarian parole requests to the deportation officers.

“This is a humanitarian — a human rights issue that they are experiencing right now at Farmville with the COVID situation,” Julien said.

At this time, all of CAIR’s requests have been denied. ICE has released no one at their request.