Immigrant Detention Centers and Coronavirus: The “Tinderbox” Scenario



Between 35,000 and 42,000 immigrants are estimated to be held by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in over 200 jails and detention centers.1 (Another 12,000 children, from infants to 17-year-olds, are held by ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement.)2 These detention sites are scattered around the U.S., especially in the South, and often in remote rural areas, hidden from public view.

And let’s be clear: Overwhelmingly these are people fleeing extremely desperate situations of violence, political persecution and economic collapse who should be welcomed and cared for. That they are imprisoned at all is an outrage and a crime.

Now an important study by Reuters news agency3 has revealed that a large number of these prisoners, who are typically held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and are often in poor health, are also “remote” from any possibility of advanced medical care if they contract COVID-19.

According to Reuters, about 5,000 prisoners are housed in facilities with no hospitals within 25 miles, and about a third of detainees are in locations where there are either none or one hospital nearby. And those hospitals that do exist in the rural U.S. are small, understaffed, under funded and barely have the capacity to deal with the local populations even in normal times, much less an influx of seriously ill detainees during an epidemic.

For instance, in one part of Louisiana, there are four detention centers with a total of 3,700 prisoners, all relying on the Winn Parish Medical Center, which has 46 beds total and five ICU (intensive care unit) beds. In another example, the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center and the Pine Prairie Processing Center, with about 1,300 detainees total, both rely on the Savoy Medical Center, with 10 ICU beds and six ventilators.

Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious diseases doctor who has worked in detention centers, estimates that an outbreak in a single center with 1,500 prisoners would require between 150 and 175 ICU admissions!4

And the danger of major outbreaks is very real due to the horrendous conditions. Reuters cited a 58-year-old Cuban man who described sharing “a dorm with 100 other men, all sleeping in three-tier bunk beds and sharing four toilets and six showers. He said guards do not wear protective gear and told the detainees to ignore news about the virus.” A 28-year-old Cuban woman said, “This is a ticking time bomb.”

According to the Guardian,5 ICE is packing together large groups who may have been exposed to COVID-19, including people with other serious medical conditions. At the Alexandria staging facility in Louisiana, ICE is “continuing to bring in new detainees from around the country in cramped quarters where they were denied masks and basic supplies to protect themselves.” Then on March 26, the “staff put up a sign outside the pod where they slept, which said the room was under ‘medical observation’ due to the possibility of exposure, saying the risk was ‘high.’” But ICE “gave the detainees no information and declined to tell them whether it was Covid-19.” According to the Guardian report:

“Everybody got panicked,” he [a detainee] said describing a chaotic scene of the detainees yelling for help and information. “We had two elderly people in their 70s, younger people with respiratory problems. One guy is crying, saying, ‘My life is in danger, we have been exposed.’ People were screaming, ‘Give us masks!’… ‘We’re gonna die!’”

At this point, ICE is claiming that there have been few infections among inmates, but it is quite likely that they have failed to test widely or that they are outright lying. There is no reason to think these centers would be immune from the epidemic spreading rapidly across the U.S.

All this leads to what two doctors who work as medical consultants to the Department of Homeland Security warned in a letter to Congress: that there could be a “tinderbox scenario,” in which “local hospital systems become overwhelmed by the patient flow from detention center outbreaks, precious health resources will be less available for people in the community… [and] many people from the detention center and the community die unnecessarily for want of a ventilator.”6

Large-scale release or furloughing of detainees is urgently necessary to prevent this.


1. See Freedom for Immigrants, “Detention by the numbers: Where are people detained in the United States?.” [back]

2. See U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Latest UAC Data – FY2019. [back]

3. Reuters, April 3, 2020: “As pandemic rages, U.S. immigrants detained in areas with few hospitals.” [back]

4. “As pandemic rages, U.S. immigrants detained in areas with few hospitals.” [back]

5. The Guardian, April 4, 2020:  “'We're gonna die': migrants in US jail beg for deportation due to Covid-19 exposure” [back]

6. CNN, March 20, 2020: “Doctors warn of ‘tinderbox scenario’ if coronavirus spreads in ICE detention.” [back]




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