The Face of Desperation: COVID-19 Pandemic Provokes Protests & Hunger Strikes inside ICE’s For-Profit Prisons

Where social distancing is impossible, immigrant detainees are panicked and pleading for their lives

Sarah Towle
11 min readApr 8, 2020


A Ticking Time Bomb

Detainees at the South Louisiana Processing Center, Lafayette, Louisiana, hacked the detention center’s “video visitation” technology to communicate their terror.

Right now, in the United States of America, people innocent of any real crime are staring death in the face, and they can’t do anything about it.

Detained immigrants are pleading for their lives, aware that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has taken no clear steps to address the rapidly spreading, lethal coronavirus within its jails and detention facilities. At ground zero of the crisis, they are panicked and demanding their rights.

So far, the results have not been good…

March 23, 2020, South Texas Immigrant Detention Center, Pearsall, Texas: Sixty detainees riot after learning about the pandemic on TV. On demanding their immediate release, guards initiate a “use of force” protocol, dousing them with pepper spray. The facility is managed by Geo Group Inc.

March 24, 2020, Pine Prairie Detention Center, Pine Prairie, Louisiana: Eight guards and an assistant warden dressed in riot gear pepper spray seven panicked inmates from less that two feet away, then send them into solitary confinement as punishment. The use of pepper spray is so severe, it’s still too painful to wear clothes the next day. The facility is managed by Geo Group Inc.

March 24, 2020, LaSalle Detention Center, Jena, Louisiana: Seven women detainees protest the jail staff’s lax social distancing measures and woeful lack of hand sanitizer, disinfectants, and personal hygiene products. They, too, are punished with pepper spray. The facility is managed by Geo Group Inc.

March 30, 2020, South Louisiana Processing Center, Lafayette, Louisiana: Terrified women at the 400-bed facility hack the detention center’s “video visitation” technology to communicate that one among them, a kitchen worker, fell ill with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Too sick to rise from her bed for three days, she was eventually hooked up to oxygen and removed by a doctor and nurse dressed in gowns, masks, gloves, and protective eyeglasses. Her 72 dorm mates are now locked in their room, in quarantine. The facility is managed by Geo Group Inc.

March 31, 2020, Port Isabel Detention Center (PIDC), Port Isabel, Texas: 70–90 detainees initiate a hunger strike, joining hunger strikers at three jails in New Jersey, to protest the lack of precautionary measures begin taking to mitigate the threat of COVID-19. The hunger strike is quashed when guards send the leader to “el poso” — the hole — i.e. solitary confinement. The facility is managed by Ahtna Support and Training Services.

I was inside the PIDC in January, and I can attest: social distancing is impossible in and ICE detention center.

At PIDC, roughly 1500 men live in close quarters. They sleep 70 to a dorm in bunk beds spaced three-feet apart. They share four toilets per dorm. They are made to buy their own soap, and at inflated prices. They are fed often spoiled, always nutrition-deficient food. They have little access to fresh air, natural light, and exercise.

In conditions this cramped and unsanitary, these men are among 37,000 immigrants currently detained in the USA who are at a heightened risk for contracting, spreading, and dying from the coronavirus.

Locked up in ICE detention for the sole crime of wanting a better life, they could — and should — have been released to their sponsors and families in the US weeks ago. And it can.

“Unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons, ICE has complete control over the release of individuals,” says John Sandweg, a former ICE head. “It has 100% discretion.”

So why isn’t ICE letting these people go?

The Architect

Photo by Sarah Towle 2020

Trump & Co’s open hostility toward immigrants insistence on squandering resources to build a border wall; cuts in funding for sanctuary cities; child separation practices; muslim ban; war on DACA; public charge rule; near-annihilation of refugee resettlement; and utter bastardization of asylum laws and processes are all initiatives of Stephen Miller: the white nationalist whose Jewish grandparents emigrated from Russia to escape pogroms. Since well before Trump cheated his way into the White House, Miller has been laser focused on blocking the immigration of brown and black people to the US. He now sits at the right hand of “the chosen one,” the architect of the above suite of policies that for three years has challenged existing legal, moral, and humanitarian frameworks at such a rip-roaring pace, it’s been difficult for most people to see, much less comprehend, them.

While Miller is not the mastermind behind either mandatory and indefinite detention or expedited removal of immigrants and asylum seekers, he has turbo-charged these practices like never before, and motivated an about-face in the national outlook toward immigration. Traditionally, politicians of all parties have considered immigration a net positive for the US. Trump & Co changed that. Now, anyone who is undocumented is fair game, the target of a cruel, punitive, and inhumane stockpile of strategies, whether you’re caught running drugs or running from persecution.

Under international law, when a person arrives at an official port of entry and asks for asylum, the country must grant his or her right to have that claim adjudicated. For the duration of the process, the asylum seeker is released to a sponsor, someone willing to take responsibility for their room and board, and getting them to court hearings on time.

Before January 2017, this system worked more than 90% of the time — despite Trump & Co’s protestations to the contrary — and it cost US taxpayers little. The systems put in place by Miller mix real criminals with those merely seeking safe haven and cost the American tax-payer dearly.

Indeed, there’s a lot of money to be made locking up innocent people: the GEO Group Inc, which runs the pepper-spray-happy facilities highlighted above, earned $2.3 billion in 2018, most significantly from US government contracts. GEO joins CoreCivic, another private prison giant (formerly, the Corrections Corporation of America) as the two highest paid ICE contractors.

What, you may ask, is a for-profit prison doing running immigrant detention centers?

Rise of the US’s For-profit Prison Industry

Photo courtesy of WIKICOMMONS

To answer that, we must dial back the clock to the Cold War, “War on Drugs,” and “Tough on Crime” eras of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s when increased border enforcement to manage immigrant waves from Haiti, Cuba, and Central America coupled with heightened internal policing and stricter sentencing flooded the US correctional system. There weren’t enough beds for the unprecedented influx of young and first-time offenders caught for petty crimes or too poor to make bail, much less the new levels of asylum seekers escaping violence.

So, the government offered contracts, paid for with tax-payer dollars, to for-profit companies willing to go into the prison business. Enter GEO Group Inc.

Formed in 1984, GEO Group Inc. now oversees approximately 95,000 prison beds worldwide. Of these, 85,000 are in 123 facilities in the US. Of these, 19.4% are ICE detention centers.

ICE contracts will make up 22% of GEO’s total revenue in 2020.

But a scathing 2016 Department of Justice review of for-profit detention centers, including those managed by GEO Group Inc, cited shocking and abusive conditions in contrast to their federally operated counterparts: 28% more inmate-on-inmate assaults, twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults, and a higher rate of staff-on-inmate security and rights abuses. Cases of alleged sexual abuses where everywhere, including at PIDC.

When Congress under Obama green-lighted the beginning of the end of privately run prisons, GEO’s stock prices dropped 6%; CoreCivic’s dropped by 9.4%. Shareholders knew: federal contracts were integral to both company’s profitability.

Their lobbyists got to work. And following a combined contribution of $500,000 to the Trump machine, the then-candidate began weaving the need for an expanded role of private prisons into his hard-line immigration rhetoric, crafted by the newest member of his campaign team: Stephen Miller.

The morning after Trump’s election, the value of GEO Group stocks rose 18%. CoreCivic stock shot up a full 34%. In 2017, the GEO Group moved its annual conference to the Trump-owned Doral resort in Boca Raton, Florida. In 2018, it overwhelmingly supported Republican candidates in the mid-term elections.

As soon as he was able, then-Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, revoked the Obama administration’s prison-reform initiative. By April of 2017, the Trump DOJ began requesting bids for contracts from private prison operators again. That same month, the GEO Group won a $110 million contract to build the first ICE detention center under the new administration. The company simply added immigrant detention to its business model. Then, ICE was deftly permitted to exploit a gap in legislation that fails to limit detention duration.

By 2019, 52,000 immigrants were being detained in ICE facilities — 70% operated by private contractors, like GEO. The average stay in a for-profit prison is 87 days, as against the 33.3 day average in publicly run facilities.

But some immigrants have been locked up for years.

One asylum seeker at PIDC had been there for 2 years and 7 months when I met him in January 2020. He’d fled his native Guinea in 2015 when the presidential candidate he worked for lost the election and all figures of the opposition were targeted. PIDC was by then his seventh detention center. Though neither criminal or flight risk, he’s been locked up in the US for over three years.

Detaining immigrants is such big business, investment analyst Rida Morwa recommended on March 13, 2020 — just when Trump & Co were finding it hard to deny that COVID-19 had also crossed US borders — putting GEO’s “16% yield in solitary confinement deep in your portfolio.” Insiders are buying, he states. Indeed, their biggest shareholders may well be managing what’s left of your money: Vanguard Group, BlackRock, Prudential, and JPMorgan.

A decrease in the immigrant detainee population would constitute a capital risk for ICE contractors, like GEO. But until they free those detainees who are innocent of any real crime, they are choosing blood on their hands over the eventual dent in their bottom line.

“This is a kidnapping. We are kidnapped by ICE.”
— 27-year-old Cuban detainee, Pine Prairie, Louisiana

Sitting Ducks

Inside a typical ICE detention center dorm room, where social distancing is impossible.

As I write this, I am sheltering at home. I suspect you are too. I am cooking my own meals and maintaining a distance of 2 meters, or 6 feet, if I should chance to meet others while walking the dog or shopping for essentials. I am washing my hands obsessively — they are red and raw — and I shower as soon as I return home from each infrequent outing.

ICE detainees cannot do any of this.

What’s more, ICE detention centers are notorious for medical neglect due to staff not taking necessary precautions against communicable diseases. Mumps, measles, chickenpox, scabies, and influenza frequently rip through ICE detention facilities. An inspection of GEO Group’s Aurora, Colorado center in February of this year revealed 68 people quarantined with the flu, 70 others down with the mumps, and 10 “under observation” for coronavirus.

In ICE’s hands, immigrant detainees are sitting ducks. The most vulnerable of the vulnerable, they are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19. Trump & Co’s “solutions” to their immigration “crisis” have turned ICE detention centers into de facto death camps.

“They are playing with our lives.”
— Port Isabel Detention Center hunger striker

The Humanitarian Response

Madeleine Sandefur and Jennifer Harbury of the Tías and Abuelas are so angry, they’ve drafted this petition to free PIDC detainees (please sign it).

An open letter to ICE Acting Director Matthew T. Albence, signed by over 3,000 US medical professionals, calls for preventative measures to combat the virus, including the release of currently incarcerated non-violent offenders.

A letter to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf does the same.

Physicians for Human Rights, RAICES, American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Hope Border Institute, Jewish Advocacy Groups, Human Rights First, Amnesty International USA, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, literally dozens of human rights organizations are begging that immigrant detainees be freed.

John Sandweg has said that COVID-19 will “spread like wildfire,” once on the inside. He, too, advocates for the immediate “release the thousands of nonviolent, low-flight-risk detainees currently in ICE custody.”

Meanwhile, such is Trump & Co’s insatiable thirst to hunt down the humans beings they view as “aliens,” that ICE officers continue raiding homes and other places of sanctuary — in the middle of a pandemic! By putting more people into detention at this critical time rather than less, they are prioritizing hate agenda over humanity.

“They are exposing us to death.”
— Port Isabel Detention Center hunger striker

Trump & Co, Let the People Go!

March 24, 2020: the same day that guards pepper-sprayed detainees in Pine Prairie and LaSalle detention centers, ICE announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19, at New Jersey’s Bergen County Jail. A guard at the same facility had tested positive the week before. Three days later, Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of all low-risk inmates from jails and detention centers across the state. Bergen County Jail let 52 individuals go shortly thereafter.

Several days later, the Monroe County detention center in Key West abruptly severed its lucrative 23-year contract with ICE and removed 48 immigrant detainees. It can be done.

As I write, there are at least 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases involving detainees or detention center employees. At PIDC, an estimated 140 individuals are in quarantine. At least four immigrant children in government shelters have tested positive. Nearly 300 US Department of Homeland Security employees have tested positive for coronavirus and more than 8,500 are self-quarantining. More than 1,100 ICE employees are self-quarantining and self-monitoring and 29 have tested positive.

The time bomb ticks ever more loudly.

Most immigrant detainees are innocent of any real crime. The only plausible reason for keeping them locked up in the middle of a global pandemic is the price they’ve put on hate. Take Caliburn International, a big player in the imprisonment of children: its Homestead, Florida facility raked in $775 per detainee, per day, before it was forced to close in late 2019. At its height, it housed 3000 teens in tents.

But the story of those profiting off the misery of children will have to wait for another post. For now, please sign the Angry Tías petition.

Then, share this post and shout from the rooftops:

Trump & Co — Let the People Go!

“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”
— Toni Morrison, 1995



Sarah Towle

Award-winning London-based author sharing her journey from outrage to activism one tale of humanity and podcast episode at a time @THE FIRST SOLUTION on Medium