MIAMI — A Miami federal judge is considering having three South Florida immigration detention centers inspected by a court-appointed “fact-finder,” after detainees gave live, scathing testimonies Thursday about the deteriorating conditions behind bars as COVID-19 rapidly spreads.
During a virtual court hearing held Thursday via Zoom, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke told U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement that she would soon be deciding whether to assign a “special master” or “professional observer” with the aim of finding out if her court orders– which were designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — have actually been followed.
“You’re getting my drift here?” Cooke asked Dexter Lee, an assistant U.S. attorney representing ICE in an ongoing lawsuit seeking the release of detainees at the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach and the Glades Detention Center in Moore Haven.
Lee said the agency would oppose the idea: “That’s certainly within the discretion of the court to do so. We don’t believe one is needed because we intend to get our own expert.”
Cooke’s suggestion emerged after two ICE detainees gave nail-biting accounts via telephone. The Glades detainees, who both tested positive for the coronavirus, told Cooke ICE is still placing COVID-positive detainees with people who are healthy or have yet to be tested, which would be a direct violation of her June 6 court order.
The witnesses, Jermaine Scott and Astley Thomas, also told Cooke that detainees are given mop buckets to clean bathrooms and common areas at the facility and that detention center guards mock detainees who test positive for the virus.
“The detainees clean the pods; no (staff) at Glades does,” Thomas said. “We get a mop bucket and chemicals. They have a sprayer that they use. Before it was MINT, now it’s called COMBAT. It stays in the air … There’s no ventilation. It makes us cough and our eyes sting.”
Scott echoed Thomas: “We get like two spray bottles, gloves, a couple rags, two push brooms and three garbage bags. They tell us to clean up after ourselves.”
Thomas told the judge COVID-positive detainees eat from the same dirty and “moldy” meal trays and that there is no opportunity to social distance anywhere on the premises, including while standing in line for daily meals or sharing one toilet for as many as 45 men. Thomas recounted to Cooke how an unmasked guard told him this week that “there is no social distancing happening here.”
“They laugh and say ‘Yeah, you all positive,’ ” Scott said. “They (were) joking about it; making little mockeries about the symptoms we have.”
During cross-examination, Lee asked Scott for the guards’ names. But the detainee — who recently filed a retaliation complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties after his comments about jail conditions were published in a recent Miami Herald article — hesitantly asked, “Do I have to name them?”
Lee told him he was “going to look into this. You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and you have the right to complain about it.”
Scott told Lee he’s been “retaliated against” in the past for “trying to put out information of what’s going on in the pod” but ultimately gave him the guards’ information.
During their arguments, the six national immigration law firms representing the ICE detainees in the case — the University of Miami’s immigration law clinic, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Rapid Defense Network in New York, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Legal Aid Service of Broward County, and Washington, D.C.-based law firm King & Spalding — asked Cooke if she would consider issuing a court order “making clear that attempts to retaliate for participating in this case will not be tolerated by the court.”
“It will probably go a long way,” said Scott Edson of King & Spalding.
The allegations against ICE went widely undenied during the hearing, as well as in the hundreds of pages of court filings filed since the litigation began on April 13.
In the agency’s weekly reports and statements — submitted in response to the mounting grievances filed by detainees and their lawyers over the months — Liana J. Castano, ICE’s Miami assistant field office director, told the court that the agency is “aware” of the claims that detainees who test positive for COVID-19 are being mixed with those who have not been tested, along with complaints about lack of masks and the inconsistent usage of them, no social distancing, inadequate soap and hand sanitizer supplies and lack of coronavirus education.
On Thursday, Lee reiterated that the agency has made moves to stop the spread of the virus: getting money for hand sanitizer dispensers and cleaning products, new seating charts for its vans and buses to maximize social distancing, as well as a mask receipt system and developing educational COVID signs and videos.
But those have mostly been empty promises, immigration lawyers told Judge Cooke — especially at Glades, which doubles as a county jail for nonimmigrant inmates.
Edson said detainees are still complaining about not having enough soap and sanitizer and questioned the accuracy of Castano’s weekly statements about Glades, a detention center she does not work at.
“She doesn’t work at Glades. She works at Krome. It’s all second- or third-hand information. It’s been a running theme with ICE,” he said. “High-level talks about what is supposed to (be) happening, versus what’s actually happening in practice. The situation at Glades is getting worse, not better, despite court orders.”
Last month the Glades detention center abruptly became one of the top 10 in the nation with the most COVID-19 cases. The entire facility was placed on lockdown after all 320 of its immigration detainees were exposed to the virus.
All detainees were grouped together — whether they were sick or not sick. Reciting recently filed ICE statements, Lee said the agency’s actions were in line with federal guidelines.
“Pursuant to the CDC Interim Guidance on Management of Coronavirus Disease 2019, Glades quarantined entire housing units due to contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19,” ICE wrote. “During this time, no new individuals were added to the group. The entire group was monitored and assessed by medical staff twice a day for COVID-19 symptoms. All symptomatic detainees were tested for COVID-19.”
The detainees’ live testimonies contradicted ICE’s statement.
“New people were transferred into the pod from Krome,” Thomas said, noting that there were at least 15 people who tested positive in that pod.
Last week, the Miami Herald interviewed two detainees who were transferred from Krome to Glades for unknown reasons. After arriving at Glades, they were administered a COVID-19 test and received positive results.
Earlier this month Cooke ruled that ICE could transfer detainees only for “immediately necessary medical appointments and release from custody.”
According to a June 18 report published by the Department of Homeland Secruity Office of the Inspector General, “ICE facilities are concerned with their inability to practice social distancing and implement other physical restrictions.”
“Despite the actions that facilities have already taken related to COVID-19, they remained concerned with their ability to practice social distancing and their limited space to quarantine or isolate detainees,” the report said, which includes survey data from 188 detention facilities nationwide, including Florida. “Generally, the nature of detention facilities makes social distancing impractical, as detainees are housed together in dorm-like pods, some with as many as 50 to 75 detainees in each pod. Additionally, most detention centers have few means to isolate large numbers of detainees.”
The three-hour hearing, which had about 100 people in attendance, had various technical difficulties, including an instance when Zoom unmuted people’s mics and the theme song to the “Spongebob Squarepants” cartoon interrupted arguments. At one point, Cooke kicked out participants who dubbed screen names such as “#FreeThemAll” and “ICE is Killing Me.”
“I wouldn’t let you in court with a T-shirt that says something like that so I’m not letting it happen here,” the judge said.
©2020 Miami Herald