Originally published by The NY Times
The tightly rolled piece of lined notebook paper had ‘important’ written on the outside in Spanish. Nilson Barahona-Marriaga, almost six feet tall with a scruffy beard and a shaved head, an immigrant from Honduras who had lived in Georgia for 20 years, unfurled it as if it were a precious scroll and began to read: “We wanted to tell you that we are going to go on a hunger strike. We ask you to join us.”
Hours earlier on April 9, a woman on her work shift in the laundry room slipped the letter into the fold of a clean piece of clothing bound for the Echo-7 unit, a men’s section of Irwin County Detention Center, in south Georgia, where Barahona and 30 other immigrants detained by ICE were held. A man discovered the note in his laundry bag, drafted by a group of detained women held on the other side of the facility. The women, it said, would refuse to show up for $1-a-day shifts in the laundry room, kitchen and commissary and would stop accepting meals from the kitchen. “We ask you to write back to us. If you all have another plan, let us know.” They were demanding that the immigrant detention center take measures to protect them from Covid-19 and that ICE release the sick, elderly and high-risk among them.
For weeks, many of the 700 people locked up in the facility, including Barahona, a 39-year-old father of a 6-year-old boy, had been asking officials for protection — masks and temperature checks for detainees and a requirement that guards, who entered and exited the facility daily, wear masks — as well a promise to stop bringing new detainees into their units. But as entire states were shutting down, life inside Irwin, which is run by a Louisiana-based private company called LaSalle Corrections, had scarcely changed, except for some additional cleaning and temperature checks for new arrivals. “We are depending totally on the authorities here and what they do,” Barahona told me. “And they are not doing much.”
In the face of that inaction, Barahona and the men in Echo were trying to communicate with people in other units of the facility. They hoped to consult about a protest to demand changes and their release, but they had failed to make contact. Then the note from the women arrived. “They already thought of it,” Barahona said. The Irwin County Detention Center was about to erupt.
Since mid-March, I’d been in regular contact with a group of 20 detained immigrants in Irwin, calling them in $3.50 14-minute intervals via video visitation software inaptly named “GettingOut.” I was present, digitally, as their voices and images streamed to my computer while they used tablets in their detention units. We talked in English or Spanish for hours at all hours of the day, or I would silently watch as guards entered the detainees’ living areas, unmasked, seemingly unfazed by the virus. I listened as detainees coughed, and watched as others fashioned masks out of scraps of torn clothes, or from broken disposable meal containers. I could see, in real time, that the protections being imposed on the rest of the country were being ignored here.
In March, the agency began a proactive review of the 38,000 people it was detaining in facilities across the country, and it released 693 elderly or otherwise vulnerable detainees, saying in mid-April that no more would be let out at the time. The federal government had effectively sealed the borders to asylum seekers during the pandemic, and ICE was still deporting immigrants; some were discovered to be infected with Covid-19 after their deportation. According to a news release by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, ICE’s acting director, Matthew T. Albence, told the committee in a closed session on April 17 that broad release would risk sending the message to Americans and potential migrants that the country was “not enforcing our immigration laws.” He warned that if ICE slowed its efforts, or released detained immigrants, it would cause a “rush at the borders,” and that its orders under the current administration — to detain and deport immigrants, as many as possible — would be imperiled.
Across the United States, when the virus has hit carceral facilities, it has spread ferociously. In one Ohio prison, a staff member tested positive for Covid-19 on March 29; a month later, around 2,000 inmates at the facility had tested positive; as of May 28, 14 people had died. For months in ICE’s detention centers, nobody really knew how many immigrant detainees had Covid-19, because the agency was scarcely testing, even as public-health experts warned of a pending crisis: One model by a group of academics published in The Journal of Urban Health in May projected that the virus would soon infect a majority of ICE’s detainees. Once testing did slowly begin, in the middle of March, the numbers soared. As of May 28, about 2,600 of ICE’s detainees have been tested, and more than half have been positive. A detainee in a California facility with an outbreak died in the first week of May; days later, another man died in Ohio, weeks after his release from ICE detention, where he appears to have been exposed. Two guards in an immigrant-detention center in Louisiana died in late April.
In response to the pandemic, immigrants in at least a dozen ICE facilities have announced protests and strikes. Irwin was about to join them. “Our lives have a lot of value, as mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, spouses, siblings,” Barahona read from the letter in Spanish. “We are humans, and we have the right to live.” He began to cry. He has diabetes and hypertension, and knows he is at risk. “They want to be certain that they are not alone,” he said. “Nobody wants to be fighting by themselves.”
The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a relatively new invention, a result of the bureaucratic reordering after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. A part of the new Department of Homeland Security, its mission was to target “terrorist and criminal activities,” but the agency has instead become, through consecutive administrations, Republican and Democratic, a means to “catch” immigrants that has no historic parallel. In 1994, fewer than 7,000 people were held on average per day in immigration detention. That number more than quadrupled by the end of the George W. Bush presidency and then kept rising, reaching nearly 40,000 under Obama. By last summer, ICE detained more than 53,000 immigrants and asylees. The Trump administration now detains anyone it can, including, since a 2017 policy was enacted, asylum seekers who previously would have been free while waiting a court decision over their claim and any undocumented immigrant, no matter how long they’d been here or what led ICE to find them.
The federal government’s commitment to detention has not meaningfully shifted since the pandemic, and so advocates have been waging a war in the courts, filing case after case in the last three months to demand that detainees with medical vulnerabilities be released immediately. “I have never seen conditions, with respect to desperation and grave urgency, at this level before,” says Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the A.C.L.U.’s National Prison Project who has for years litigated against unsafe ICE detention conditions.
In early April, just two days before the note appeared in Barahona’s dorm, lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Asian Americans Advancing Justice filed a habeas petition in federal court on behalf of Barahona and seven other detainees in Georgia, all of whom were medically vulnerable with conditions that include diabetes, hypertension, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The filing was one of dozens across the country to demand the release of the elderly and people with medical conditions. In at least 18 federal court districts, judges have acceded to these petitions, ordering the release of detainees. As of May 28, federal courts have ordered 392 people be let out.
But while the total detainee population has fallen significantly since the start of the pandemic, a majority of the 12,000-person decline in the population since late February is a direct result of the Department of Homeland Security’s decisions to constrict the introductions of new arrivals. In March, ICE said it would limit arrests of immigrants on the streets, and then the agency effectively closed the border, halting legal asylum petitions, severing a major flow of detainees into the system.
The Department of Homeland Security achieved in the pandemic what the administration, led by the White House adviser Stephen Miller and other anti-immigrant DHS and White House officials, had been trying to do in piecemeal fashion for three years: effectively ending American compliance with obligations under domestic and international law to allow people fleeing persecution in their home countries to make legal claims for protection in the United States.
In California, a federal judge ordered ICE to reopen its review to identify older and medically vulnerable detainees, writing that in delaying any meaningful response to the pandemic, the agency had “likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and well-being of” detainees. This resulted in ICE’s identifying 4,409 more people who were at “heightened risk of severe illness and death.” But as of the end of May, the agency had proactively released only 200 more “at risk” detainees, for a total of 900. In an emailed response to questions, an ICE spokesperson wrote that “additional reviews could be conducted if the circumstance related to Covid-19 and/or C.D.C. guidelines change,” and that it would review people “at the time of arrest.”
The agency, the spokesperson wrote in the same email, has taken “extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of cohorting and medical isolation.”
But as the pandemic has spread from one ICE facility to the next, the agency has repeatedly played down the risk. In response to Barahona’s habeas petition and many others like it, ICE has said fears of infection were “purely speculative” and “conjectural,” that detainees would be no safer outside than they were inside. When it has been forced to release detainees, the agency has often claimed that there are dangerous criminals among the newly freed. ICE lawyers cited a past arrest on charges of drinking and driving in response to Barahona’s habeas petition. After Barahona was pulled over in the D.U.I. stop last fall, the local judge gave him a bond and said he could return home and to his job at a stucco company, but ICE picked him up at the county jail before he could leave. Barahona is undocumented, even though he has lived in Atlanta since he was a teenager, when he followed his mother, who is now a permanent resident, and is married to an American woman, who began the process of petitioning for his green card before he was detained. When he asked for release, an ICE officer wrote, “He has not established that he is not a danger to the community.”
But the agency’s reluctance to release detainees seems to stem less from any public threats posed by the people it detains than from an existential sort of anxiety about its own future. In response to one federal lawsuit filed on March 26 in California on behalf of two detained men, ICE lawyers wrote, “The disruptive effect of ordering petitioners released on this slim, hypothetical basis would long survive the Covid-19 pandemic, and the precedent would serve to release many aliens eligible for removal back into the general public.”
For most of American history, though, immigration laws were enforced without sending hundreds of thousands of people each year to pens to wait out their cases for weeks or months or years. Before the 1980s, when the Reagan administration opened thousands of immigration-detention beds to send a hard message to Haitian and Cuban asylees, immigration detention was used primarily for brief, several-day periods to process entrants and effectuate removals. Over the past decades, detention has grown into a sprawling empire of hundreds of facilities scattered across the country.
John Sandweg served during the Obama administration as the D.H.S.’s acting general counsel and as ICE’s interim director. To immigrant-rights advocates, Sandweg, who is now in private practice, was a target of aggressive campaigns to fight Obama-era detention policies. While he was at ICE, the agency detained what were then historically high numbers of people. But during his seven months as the organization’s director, Sandweg says now, he began to question the need for mass detention. For him it became morally intolerable when, during his tenure, a detained woman committed suicide in a detention center, and he learned that the agency could have allowed her to wait out her legal case from home. “She had a history of mental illness,” Sandweg told me. “She should have never been detained.”
Now, during the pandemic, Sandweg has been calling on the agency, in op-eds and in statements with human rights groups, to release a majority of detainees. “Why would we continue to put people in crowded facilities where they can be exposed to a virus like this, where they are under tremendous strain, and they are separated from their family?” Sandweg asked. “If ICE now has some deep-seated fear that a pandemic like this could demonstrate there are alternative ways of enforcing immigration laws, that is an absolutely terrible reason not to take common-sense steps to reduce the threat to detainees and everyone who works in these facilities.”
At about the very moment on April 9 that a detained woman in the Irwin County Detention Center was secreting a note in the newly cleaned laundry bag bound for Barahona’s unit, David Paulk, the Irwin warden who had run the facility for nearly two years, was filing an affidavit to the court in response to Barahona’s habeas petition. The declaration disclosed that a detained man — a 55-year-old Colombian recently brought to the facility, I later learned — had tested positive for Covid-19. A contracted transportation guard had the virus, too. Only three of the 699 people the facility held at the time had been tested, according to court testimony. Paulk didn’t report how many staff members had been checked for the virus.
I called Barahona’s dorm immediately after I learned the news. “There was one person who tested positive,” Barahona said, right away. “It’s here.” Barahona’s lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Diego Sánchez, had told him, and Barahona had told the other men in his unit. The news was less a revelation than a confirmation of what the men already expected. Barahona’s hands were shaking. The officers hadn’t given him his diabetes medicine that evening, he said, and he didn’t know if he was shaking because his meds were out of whack or because the news about the virus had sent him into a spiral. “I’m going to try to calm myself down,” he said.
The next day, April 10, the federal judge in Barahona’s habeas case held a dial-in hearing, in compliance with court social-distancing rules. In court, the warden said he had implemented additional cleaning measures; he wrote in the affidavit that detainees are “repeatedly advised by staff to practice social distancing measures in addition to C.D.C. recommended hand-washing procedures.” “Unfortunately,” he noted, “detainees often choose not to follow this protocol.”
ICE’s assistant field-office director for Atlanta wrote in a separate statement that detainees entering facilities were screened and asked whether they’d had contact with anyone with Covid-19. If they said they had, they were separated from other detainees for 14 days. Hand-cleaner dispensers, he said, had been added to the bathrooms, and the facility was routinely cleaned. (Several detainees in the women’s unit told me the dispensers were sometimes empty.)
The judge, Clay D. Land, denied the request for the detainees’ release. The facility, he wrote, could fix the problems and alleviate any constitutional violations without letting these eight people out. “This is a terribly hard loss,” Sánchez, Barahona’s lawyer, told me. “Nobody can with any honesty say people there are safe.”
Immigration detention is an administrative hold, designed to ensure that people facing deportation don’t disappear. Because detained immigrants are held neither as consequence of being charged or convicted of a crime nor on orders of a judge, ICE has vast authority to simply release nearly everyone it holds — to grant detainees parole. Even detainees with specific past criminal convictions, whom the agency is required, by statute, to detain after their criminal sentence ends, can be released on humanitarian exigencies. The agency can, if it chooses, find other, noncustodial forms of supervision — requiring check-ins with officers, say, or forcing detainees to pay a bond, or attaching an electronic monitor to their ankle. Studies show more than 95 percent of immigrants in these release programs comply.
ICE told me that it “continues to encourage facilities to follow C.D.C. guidelines” and requires detention centers to comply with a set of federal standards, including “plans that address the management of communicable diseases.” But just last year, a report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found “egregious violations of detention standards,” including for medical care. Inspectors hired to perform a review of Irwin County Detention Center in 2017 wrote that the facility was failing to comply with basic standards, noting, among other things, that the medical area and patient examination tables were filthy.
Barahona had heard on TV news reports that most of the people dying of Covid-19 were either old or had health conditions like his. None of the facility workers had told him anything about how to protect himself, he said. “My biggest concern is my son. You know, the deepest wish of my heart is to be able to be with him for as long as he needs me.”
For weeks before the first positive Covid-19 test in Irwin, detainees had been trying to demand stricter safety protocols. Barahona introduced me to a gravel-voiced 33-year-old Cuban man named Reydel Sarria-Gondres, who had been in detention for more than a year while waiting for an appeal of his asylum case. Sarria-Gondres had taken to confronting officers who entered the unit without masks. “Why are you guys not taking this seriously?” Sarria-Gondres said he was almost ready to do something to get himself sent to solitary confinement, which, dreadful as it would be, would be better, he thought, than sitting in a unit with 30 other men.
Earlier attempts at major protests in Irwin faltered. One of my most regular contacts was with Andrea Manrique, a 34-year-old Colombian asylum-seeker who was detained by ICE when she landed at the airport in Los Angeles. The women in Manrique’s unit slept in beds no more than three feet apart. Some had cold symptoms. One reported a fever. “We have contact directly with people who are sick,” Manrique said. They worried that the sick people were infected with the coronavirus. In late March, Manrique and a group of other women huddled together amid the bunks and talked in hushed voices, telling a suspicious guard that they were merely praying. They decided they would stop going to work shifts, and that they would refuse meals from the kitchen. But just a day later, they called off the protest. The women realized that unless they could find some way to communicate with the rest of the facility — to persuade other detainees beyond the 70 or so women in their unit to join them — their protest would be quickly crushed.
Barahona and the men in Echo had already tried and failed, too. At the start of April, guards had tried to move the men to the Alpha dorms, where as many as 100 slept in rows of bunk beds bolted to the floor a few feet from each other. In Echo, at least, there was a modicum of separation: two stories, each with eight double-occupancy cells.
When an officer ordered them to pack their things because the space was needed, the men, determined not to move, actively resisted. “You think we’re all going to fit in the hole?” Barahona said. “No, they can’t put us all into solitary.”
“You all are making a mistake,” a guard yelled. The video feed I was watching cut off. When Barahona finally picked up again, an hour later, he was still in Echo, cleaning the empty unit. The officers had pulled the men out two by two. Many were taken to Alpha. Barahona and a group of others were sent to a nearby dorm still on Echo, with one- or two-person cells. Barahona assumed they were trying to keep the suspected instigators away from the rest of the men.
Even after the revelation on April 9 that Covid-19 had arrived at Irwin, ICE and LaSalle Corrections continued to minimize the threat of the pandemic. In the court filing that day, Warden Paulk wrote that Irwin County Detention Center “is and will remain capable of taking all adequate safeguards to protect staff and the inmate population from a Covid-19 outbreak.” An ICE public-affairs officer for the region told me at the time that the low rate of infection vindicated whatever the agency was doing. But the revelation unified detainees in Irwin. Unit by unit, notes spread, while detainees’ relatives messaged other detainees’ relatives to get the word out: Strikes were beginning in the facility.
Manrique told me that the women in her unit would join the strike; no one would leave the dorm, and no one would eat meals from the kitchen. They would get by on food they had stashed from the commissary. “Tomorrow it’ll be a year since I’ve been in here,” Manrique said. She missed her son’s 19th birthday two days before. “I am afraid for my life.”
The men in Echo-7, Barahona’s unit, were mobilizing, too, preparing signs in English and in Spanish to hold up for their relatives and reporters to record through the GettingOut app. One read, “We Are Not Safe Here.” The men were talking about a hunger strike.
In another unit, a 62-year-old man named Elias Garcia, who grew up in the United States after he followed his mother from Mexicali, Mexico, when he was 10 and who had a green card (ICE cited a 15-year-old drug conviction, for which he had been sentenced to probation, to justify his lockup), met with other men in a cell, away from the intercom system that they worried allowed officials to overhear. They had heard about the women’s strike. “If we are going to do this, we are going to do this together,” he said.
The boyfriend of a woman in Manrique’s unit recorded a video from a video chat, which soon began circulating online. Manrique appeared at the start, wearing a mask she had fashioned from a piece of fabric. “We are raising our voices so our petitions can be heard,” she said. Other women, some faces bare, held signs that read in Spanish, “We don’t have protection” and “There are sick people here.” “We are afraid of infecting one another, by breathing, coughing, anything,” another woman said.
Other dorms also began to act. Elias Garcia held up a sign that read, “I’m Human,” and another that disparaged the use of “alien” to describe human beings, reading “E.T. Is the Alien.” A line of men walked to the camera and held signs, drawn in bubble letters, asking to be let free, to be protected. A Nigerian man who said he had been detained after failing to renew his green card and who had stopped eating spoke: “I am 68. I do not want to die.”
On the morning of April 13, CNN en Español interviewed Barahona for a story about people protesting in detention: “I know that by our stopping eating, the officials will get to a point where they’ll have to pay attention to the situation,” he said in Spanish. “If we don’t do anything, this will continue.”
Later that afternoon, an ICE officer came to speak with the men in Barahona’s unit. “Good afternoon. Does anyone at this time speak English?” he asked, as the tablet captured the conversation. To Barahona and the others, the man’s arrival felt like a sign of success. A central grievance inside the facility — and a routine refrain on many of my calls — was a sense, born out in experience, that nobody with any power was sharing any meaningful information with the people detained inside. As Manrique told me soon into our first conversation in late March: “We are scared, and nobody is giving us answers. Do you know anything about what is happening?” In many ways, what the detainees had been asking for was information about how to protect themselves. They wanted to talk to someone who could make actual decisions about their lives. Now, an officer from the agency that could release them stood before them.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “First of all, I can’t answer any questions. There’s a process that works.” The officer kept talking: ICE “officers are not working in the office, everybody’s working from home, the courts are not running as normal, OK?” The officer rattled through a list of ways the virus had derailed the normal system — grounded deportation flights, slowed courts, nearly moribund visa processing. “What it leads to is this [expletive] basically.”
“There is nobody infected in this facility,” the officer continued. The men erupted. Just that day, ICE had updated its website to include the Irwin case in its list of positives. “They said there was!” Nilson bellowed in response.
“There is not,” the officer replied. Nilson spoke again, his voice measured and low: “OK. Let me tell you something. My name is Nilson Barahona, I put a lawsuit to this facility, both of the wardens were in the federal court on Thursday” — he was referencing Paulk and the Stewart detention center warden. “They declared that they have tested three people and one came positive.”
“Not in this facility,” the officer said. “The information that you’ve been given, all right, it’s not accurate. First of all, this is a multimillion-dollar operation.” He continued, “The grand authority over all of this comes out of the White House and C.D.C.,” adding: “It really is disgusting to me, the whole situation, it really is. The people responsible for this information are nowhere to be found. They’re all sitting at home somewhere barking orders telling people like me what to say to you. I can give you as much information that’s available. I can’t go kick down the warden’s door, you can’t even begin to imagine.”
The officer prepared to leave. A detained man yelled over a buzz of voices: “Last question. Where the hell have you been for the last 10 days?” A 30-year-old Ghanaian immigrant who had lived in Atlanta for more than a decade spoke: “I want to tell you, right now, we are on a hunger strike.” None of the men had eaten since the morning. “We’re trying to bring attention to it, right?” He asked whom they should speak to.
The officer responded: “The facility is going to continue addressing issues as they arise. What that entails, I have no idea, OK? That’s the facility. That’s the warden’s choice.”
Credit...Illustration by Señor Salme
Nilson returned to the tablet to talk with me again; other men stood on the second-floor platform, watching the officer leave. “I think they haven’t taken us seriously yet,” he said. “I think a few more hours have to pass by for them to realize that this is not a game for us.”
The video calls in Irwin stopped working on April 14. Manrique called using the phone that afternoon. She sounded frantic. “Today they took the tablets and TV,” she said. “They’re punishing us. They found out we made the video.”
Lindsay Williams, an ICE public-affairs officer for the region, told me he had no knowledge of any protest, or whether tablets being turned off was in response to a strike. Maybe some detainees were not going to eat a few meals, he said, but under ICE rules a hunger strike had to last at least three days. Warden Paulk told me to call LaSalle; the corporation did not reply.
Later that evening, Manrique called again. This time she was calmer. Just listen, she told me. In the background, a guard was singing a gospel song, “Victory Is Mine.” “Victory is not losing yourself, is not giving up hope,” the guard told the women after she stopped singing. “And it’s keeping the fight.” The women took it as a gesture of solidarity — many detainees, including Manrique, had expressed concern about the staff members, who were just as vulnerable to the disease’s spread as they were. The guard eventually stopped talking, and an ICE officer arrived. He told the women their protest would lead to nothing.
By then, Barahona had been moved from Echo. He said officials had threatened the 30 or so men in his unit that they would be locked up. Half the men ended their protest and were sent to a different dorm. Most of those who remained, who said they would continue their hunger strike, were locked in cells. Five men, including Barahona, were moved to what detainees called the punishment cells in the Delta unit. He said that an ICE official told them that if they persisted on a hunger strike for more than 72 hours, the agency could go to a federal judge to request permission to force-feed them. By April 16, the other four men had agreed to eat. As they were taken out of the Delta unit, the men passed Barahona’s cell. “Just let everybody know I’m OK, bro,” he said to one of them. “I understand why you all want to come off of it. I’m going to continue.” Nilsen had stopped consuming food, water, even his diabetes medication.
Manrique said that although the women had stopped going to work, most hadn’t lasted long refusing meals. “I try to put a strong front for the other women here, but I am really tired,” she told me. In dorm after dorm, where four days earlier women and men were rallying and protesting, detainees were deflated. “I am afraid that something catastrophic will happen inside of here,” Manrique said through tears.
On April 18, Barahona called me from a phone brought by a guard to his cell. He was one of only a few detainees still protesting. He spoke slowly, exhaled deeply. “I haven’t eaten for five days.” Reydel Sarria-Gondres, the gravel-voiced Cuban man, had been delivered to this same cell two days earlier, and both men said they wouldn’t end their hunger strike until their demands were met and they could talk with a senior ICE official. “Nothing has changed,” Barahona said. Just that day, an officer had walked into the Delta unit with no mask on. “I’m not suicidal, you know, but I think this has a solution, and I think the solution is to talk to the right people.”
Later that night, I learned from another detainee that guards at the facility had finally started taking the temperatures of people inside. A 19-year-old Bangladeshi man held on the Alpha unit, the part of Irwin that Barahona had resisted being moved to, had a fever, and was removed to an isolation cell. He tested positive for Covid-19. Detainees say the entire Alpha dorm was held in lockdown for 14 days.
Two days later, Sarria-Gondres called me. “Yesterday they took Nilson trembling to medical,” he said. Barahona had told Sarria-Gondres he didn’t feel well, was dizzy. Sarria-Gondres had called for a doctor. He himself had not eaten for seven days. “I am not doing well. My kidneys hurt. When I pee it burns a lot. I get really dizzy. I woke up today with chest pain. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.” He was still determined not to eat, he said. “The sergeant came wearing a mask on her chin while talking to the detainees. They’re still not taking this seriously.”
On April 21, when I tried to reach the detainees through the tablets, I was unable to sign in. A notification on my cellphone said my access had been blocked. I dialed GTL, the company that operates the platform, and was told the facility had suspended my account. I was banned until 2025.
That same day, Manrique was locked for 14 days in a double segregation cell, I later learned from her lawyer. Four other women from the same dorm were moved there as well. All had appeared in the video posted on the internet. Manrique said an official told her they were being punished for the video, because, she told her lawyer, “we spoke badly of the institution,” and the women “were abusing the resources that they were giving us.”
Barahona was returned to Echo-7, rolled in by wheelchair, on April 23. He had decided to end his hunger strike on the 10th day, when he learned the young Bangladeshi man with Covid-19 was being held in the medical unit nearby. A nurse told him, “It is better for you to leave this place.”
Within a few weeks, detainees told me that several people inside the Alpha unit were acutely sick. A local charity had delivered a pile of masks to the facility that were handed out to the detained, but the virus had already begun to spread. One young man named Jackson Arevalo-Callejas, originally from El Salvador, told me he had lost his sense of smell. A 65-year-old Cuban man told me he was scarcely moving from his bed, but there was nothing he could do to maintain six feet of distance. None of the men in the dorm had been tested for the virus.
On May 7, the judge presiding over the habeas petition on behalf of Barahona agreed to allow a correctional-medicine expert to evaluate over video whether Irwin and Stewart were operating in a way that could keep detained people safe. In the days that followed, detainees say the staff at Irwin began to clean the facilities and hang small signs on the walls that instructed detainees to stay six feet apart. After his video inspection, the expert concluded that the facilities were not complying with C.D.C. guidelines.
By May 13, ICE reported a total of six detainees in Irwin had tested positive. Elias Garcia, the 62-year-old man who’d held up the “E.T.” sign, was among them. “We were trying to protect ourselves,” he said over the phone from the isolation cell where he had been moved. “We were just asking for masks.” His voice was weak, his breath obviously short. He said that his whole body ached and that he was feverish; he felt as if a heavy weight were on his chest. He said this was the loneliest place to be in quarantine.
On the morning of May 14, Barahona said he was loaded onto a bus with 40 other men from different dorms, including Jackson, the young Salvadoran man who’d told me he had lost his sense of smell. Barahona sat next to Sarria-Gondres, who ended his hunger strike after more than two weeks. A few hours later, they were unloaded at the Stewart Detention Center. ICE told me it moved detainees to “stem the potential spread of Covid-19” by reducing populations in facilities where people are infected. But by the day of the men’s arrival, 16 Stewart detainees and dozens of staff members had already tested positive.
When Barahona called me from Stewart, he was furious that ICE had moved him and the other men from one facility to another. He said he still hoped that the judge would order his release, or that ICE might reconsider and grant him parole. “At the end of the day, all of this is run by ICE,” Barahona said. “They are the ones responsible for us, the ones who keep us detained.”
On May 24, a 34-year-old Guatemalan man named Santiago Baten-Oxlaj became the first Stewart detainee to die of Covid-19. The same day, the lawyers on Barahona’s habeas petition were back in court. On the question of the detainees’ release, Judge Land said: “I have not heard anything terribly persuasive to change my mind.”