‘We don’t want to die locked up here’

Confirmed COVID-19 case pushes demands to get ICE detainees out of Nye County jail

Screenshot of Facebook Video posted by the Nye County Sheriffs Office announcing an employee of the Nye County Detention Center has tested positive for COVID-19.

Immigrant detainees were informed about a positive case of COVID-19 inside the Nye County Jail through a notice taped on their cell door.

“We had someone test positive for Covid. As a result we are taking precautions to ensure the safety of all inmates,” read the notice. “All inmates and staff will be wearing masks. The facility will be on lockdown until further notice. We are working on getting tests for inmates, however, that will take several days.”

The Nye County Sheriff’s Department announced that two staff members at the detention center tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19 among those in its custody or among ICE employees working in detention facilities in Nevada.

“There are no positive detainee cases of COVID 19 at Nye County Jail,” wrote an ICE spokesman in an email on Monday.

That hasn’t stopped fear from spreading among the detainees. 

“We’re scared of getting infected. We have family outside and to tell you the truth we don’t want to die locked up here,” said one migrant in his native Spanish, in a video interview set up by the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center with detainees who did not want their names released out of fear of retaliation.

The man, who was transferred from an ICE facility in Utah, said his family could not afford an immigration lawyer for him after recently purchasing a trailer home. 

“I love my wife and my kids,” he said. “I want to be home with them.”

Lawyers, and advocates say detainees have told them that multiple immigrants in the Nye center have shown possible symptoms of COVID-19.  

In an interview with the Current, one detainee reported that at least four individuals are showing flu-like symptoms, increasing fear of possible contamination. Two other detainees independently confirmed that at least four individuals were showing flu-like symptoms, according to accounts collected by the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center.

The Nye County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment, including questions about how many inmates and staff might be quarantined and what safety precautions were being taken for detainees but has announced in a video message that “staff schedules have been adjusted to avoid further contamination” and that “all staff and inmates will be tested.”

For immigration advocates in Nevada the announcement of an infected staff member at the detention center supports their worst fear, that an outbreak in detention centers is not only possible but imminent.

Bliss Requa-Trautz, the director of the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, said the center has fielded multiple calls from immigrants in the Nye County Detention Center seeking immediate release because of insufficient health and safety protocols inside the jail.

“We’re seeing an outbreak and insufficient staff in the facilities to ensure the health and safety of detainees are protected,” Requa-Trautz said. “It is impossible to implement social distancing in the jails at this time.”

The Arriba Center along with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network is calling on ICE and Nye County Jail to release all eligible detainees — who include undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, people who overstayed their visas and others — before the pandemic creates an irreversible health crisis inside detention facilities.

The agency announced that 360 detainees have tested positive for coronavirus in 31 different ICE facilities in 14 states as of Tuesday. Another 35 confirmed cases in 11 facilities have been reported among ICE employees working in ICE detention facilities, according to ICE. The ICE numbers do not include staff in detention centers not run by ICE such as the one in Nye County.

In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 some civil rights groups have filed lawsuits over the crowded conditions inside ICE detention centers, leading judges to order the release of a number of federal detainees.

In the video interview with the Current, two detainees inside the jail said they were given masks and that employees were spraying down the cells with cleaning agents but that inmates were detained in crowded cells. Eight people are housed in each cell making social distancing unworkable, they said. 

Staff in the Nye County Jail seem to acknowledge as much in the notice taped to the small window on the cell door, visible in the video interview.

text
Notice alerting detainees of a positive case of COVID-19.

“Please remember social distancing,” read the notice. “Try to stay 6 feet away from each other as much as possible. We know that is difficult in the facility. Please make sure you wear your Masks at all times while in the facility.”

Paloma Guerrero, a fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic, represents a client at the Nye County Jail and does consultations with detained immigrants as well but that the lockdown was making it difficult to keep in contact with detainees.

Guerrero was able to tour the Nye County Jail a few months ago. She said many of the inmates live in open floor pods with bunk beds so near to each other they could lay down, reach out and touch their neighbor.

“If people are not released we will see a massive outbreak at Nye County,” Guerrero said. 

Guerrero said she has been in touch with an immigrant detainee at the jail that was put in isolation after displaying  flu-like symptoms, including a high fever, a headache, and a strong cough. She called isolation a “a cruel and unusual punishment” that should not be used as a safety measure.

“Immigration detention is civil detention,” Guerrero said. “It’s not supposed to be there to punish and that’s what these detention centers are doing when they put people in isolation.”

ICE has contracts with various immigration detention centers to house ICE detainees in Nye County, including the Nevada Southern Detention Center, a private facility run by CoreCivic, and the Nye County Detention Center but ultimately ICE has the ultimate authority to hold or release detainees.

In March, ICE formed a working group to identify additional steps to minimize the spread of the virus and identify those who might be at higher risk of illnesses resulting from COVID-19. Nearly 700 people were released  “after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns.”

The number of people detained by ICE has dropped by more than 4,000 since March 1, 2020 with a more than 60 percent decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year, according to ICE.

ICE did not respond to questions about the call to release detainees in the Nye County Detention Center beyond sharing a webpage detailing the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The agency’s website details its procedures in the event that a detained person becomes ill: “Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population,” the statement says. “ICE places detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.