Originally published by Mother Jones
In May, Officer Smith was at the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana, with a group of immigration detainees on the verge of being deported. But there was a problem. Smith—who asked to be identified by a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation for speaking out—said that the detainees’ temperatures reached as high as 103 degrees. If detainees had temperatures above 99 degrees, they couldn’t be deported under Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy. So Smith was instructed to blast the air conditioner to “freeze them out” so they could pass temperature checks and and get on the plane.
Smith is a whistleblower at the Richwood Correctional Center, a COVID-ravaged immigration detention center in northern Louisiana, speaking out with legal representation from the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog organization that protects corporate and government whistleblowers. Last week, I spoke to Smith and a second Richwood whistleblower after GAP submitted a letter to Congress that details what they’ve witnessed at Richwood.
Their accounts provide an inside look at how LaSalle Corrections, the private prison company that runs Richwood, flouted guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and contributed to an outbreak that caused at least 65 COVID-19 cases among Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at Richwood. According to the whistleblowers, LaSalle deliberately withheld personal protective equipment and vital information from both staff and detainees in hopes of preventing panic. With two Richwood guards dead after testing positive for COVID-19, the deception appears to have proved fatal.
“We want to acknowledge and highlight the tremendous work that staff are doing each and every day to protect the health and safety of the men and women in our care,” LaSalle executive Scott Sutterfield said in an email. He added, “Very disappointing that anonymous sources would attempt to distort these hero’s [sic] efforts through false and misleading allegations.” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said via email that “anonymous, unsubstantiated allegations should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”
The second Richwood whistleblower, who is being identified by the pseudonym Officer Jones, said management downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19 from the start. In March, a medical official at the jail told employees that COVID-19 was comparable to the flu and that they had no right to demand extra protection if they hadn’t gotten a flu shot, according to GAP’s letter to Congress.
Jones was particularly worried by the fact that LaSalle prohibited staff from wearing masks. Management justified the ban by saying it would help prevent “hysteria” among detainees, Jones said. But detainees had access to TV news and knew the virus was spreading. “Are we safe?” they asked Jones all the time. Staff were allowed to wear masks only after the Associated Press asked about the mask ban—by which point the virus had already entered the facility. Even then, Jones said, employees weren’t required to wear masks, and detainees didn’t get them immediately.
As I reported in April, detainees were horrified as they watched the virus spread through the facility. Guards became infected, and Richwood found itself short on staff. As a result, managers required employees who got tested for COVID-19 to keep working while they waited for results, Jones said. In one case, Jones said, someone spent two days working at Richwood with pending results before testing positive. Guards who hadn’t tested positive had to work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, according to both whistleblowers. (LaSalle’s executive director, Rodney Cooper, told Congress last week that the pandemic has not affected his company’s ability to staff detention centers.)