On April 16, 2020, two NIJC clients spoke about their experiences in ICE detention during the COVID-19 pandemic at a Congressional briefing. Both men had been recently released from detention at different detention facilities in the Midwest, and although their stays differed in duration and location, both reported a lack of cleaning supplies, cramped conditions, and a lack of preparation for the pandemic from officials. Here are the testimonies of Marco Milian Gomez and Ibraheem Akinbiyi.
Good afternoon and thank you all for participating in this briefing. My name is Marco Milian Gomez, and I was in ICE detention for over a year before being released on Thursday, April 2. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss my experiences in ICE detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was in Pulaski County Detention Center when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and was transferred to McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility for the last month. What I am describing are events from my time at McHenry County.
I felt insecure in the jail. We were hearing things, seeing things on the news, but we didn’t see the jail staff doing anything different. We would ask for things—cleaning supplies, masks, soap, hand sanitizer, and none was provided. There are about 64 people in the unit and there was no soap, no hand sanitizer or anything. You had to ask, and all they’d give you was this tiny little bar. They were running low on everything.
There’s no way you can have social distance from everyone. You’re in a tiny, tiny cell with another person, you have to eat in front of 3 or 4 people at least, and there’s just enough chairs for everybody to sit. The people who pass out the food are the same ones for the whole floor, they go door to door. If something gets in there, it’s going to spread.
Not only that, but people kept coming in every day, I don’t know where from. Officials said they wouldn’t be bringing in more people, but there were just people coming in on a daily basis. I also recently got moved from one detention center to another, and they’re supposed to screen you, but all they did was ask questions—”Do you have a fever? Do you feel sick?” But they wouldn’t actually take your temperature. The nurses and the medical staff in those places are overworked. I don’t see them putting up with the whole thing for much longer, because they were already stressed out.
While we were there there were a lot of people with coughs, and they would always tell us to put a sick call in, but they wouldn’t take a temperature or do anything else. And even then, you would just see the nurse, not the doctor unless they think you’re really sick. When they do take you to sick call, they take you in groups, and put you in a little 4x8 room. Everything is so confined in there I don't see how they have a plan to stop that, unless they lock everyone in their cells.
All of the guards, I don’t know if they went on strike, or they decided not to come to work, or what, but only the sheriff's department was running the jail. Because of this, they would lock us down for 3-4 hours in a row, and we would be unable to use the day room or leave our cells. Mentally, I don’t think people are going to be able to be locked down like that. People are already worried, and then on top of that being put in a little bitty cell for hours? If anything was to break out, they’d lock people up in their cells. If you’re in your cell you don’t have access to phone, mail, TV—nothing. There’s a toilet and that’s it. No showers, no nothing.
When I got out, I was relieved. At least out here I can stay away from people, wear a mask, take care of cleaning. I can take control of protecting myself here, but in there, whatever they give you is what you have to live with. You can’t get any help unless they give it to you.
I know for a fact that by the time I left, other detainees were going to try to do hunger strikes to try to get more cleaning supplies. I feel bad for them, because they're scared. There’s a lot of people in there that feel like they can do nothing. Some people left kids, and the kids got taken into foster care, so can’t talk to their kids right now. The prison is just not the place to be when you’ve got family outside. It’s terrifying.
Good afternoon and thank you all for participating in this briefing. My name is Ibraheem Akinbiyi, and I was in ICE detention at Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County, Illinois for six months before being released on March 18, 2020.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss my experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic while in ICE detention.
We mostly got our information about coronavirus from Univision, and the TV in the unit. When we would ask the correctional officers about it, they would downplay it, saying things like “oh, it’s just a flu.”
On March 14th, ICE quickly transferred all their detainees from the Kenosha County Detention Center after they refused to accept more detainees as part of their COVID-19 protocols, and many of those people ended up in Kankakee.
Even though we were getting detainees from different places nurses weren’t testing for the coronavirus, they didn’t have tests. I was really anxious about what would happen if someone came in with the virus.
One of the men that came from the Kenosha detention center was coughing, and basically had all the symptoms of coronavirus. While they said that he only had strep throat, the Corrections Officer that spoke to him would always wear a face mask. They didn’t give him a mask, or any of us, because they were worried that prisoners having masks would be bad. They didn’t have space in segregation to put him, so they put him in with us. He couldn’t come out of the cell, but from what I knew about the virus, it could spread very easily anyways. They also didn’t take a lot of the needed precautions for him: they were supposed to give him a disposable plastic tray for his food, but a lot of the time the kitchen didn’t get the memo and he got a regular tray like the rest of us did.
Even though I was close to getting out by the time the virus struck, I still had to worry about both the virus and my case in court--I was very anxious.
Everything you read about getting rid of the virus, Kankakee is the opposite. Lots of metal and hard surfaces, where the virus can supposedly live for hours. There’s not a lot of cleaning and there’s not enough space for distancing.
A big issue with Kankakee is that it's very crowded: they have state inmates, federal inmates, immigration folks, everyone is there. As I was saying, there’s no space in segregation, nowhere to put people if they got infected. I don’t know what they've been telling you but they don’t have a plan. They don’t have space to have a plan.