Suit against Pahrump ICE facility says inhumane conditions led to Covid outbreak

Many detainees shouldn’t be there in the first place, attorney says

ICE making an arrest in Nevada in 2016. (Photo: ICE).

Since the start of the pandemic, immigrant groups and civil rights attorneys have sued U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement over its treatment of detainees and pressed facilities to release people to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Immigration attorney Dee Sull is the latest to file a lawsuit Thursday against the Southern Nevada Detention Center, an ICE facility in Pahrump managed by the private corporation CoreCivic.

Sull, who is representing 25 facility detainees who have tested positive, said the facility is experiencing a Covid outbreak because of living conditions and inadequate care.

“We are challenging the continued detention of our clients and other people in the Southern Nevada Detention Center,” she said at a press conference last week. “We believe that CoreCivic and ICE are violating the 5th and 8th Amendments because they are placing people in substantial risk of contracting the novel coronavirus and they are falling gravely ill already. Many were severely ill when we met with them.”

When asked to respond to the lawsuit and the number of Covid cases, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said via email that ICE “couldn’t comment due to ongoing litigation” but the “lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with or stipulation to any of the allegations.” 

According to ICE’s website, there are five detainees in isolation being monitored at the detention facility and a total of 10 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 since testing started.  

At the Nye County Jail, which also holds ICE detainees, 26 people have been confirmed positive. The website doesn’t have data on the Henderson Detention Center, another facility that ICE contracts with to hold detainees.

Sull argued the numbers of people with Covid is higher than what is reported and that “ICE is trying to conceal the true extent of its outbreak.” 

“We think there is a deliberate indifference that is happening by both ICE and CoreCivic in not testing the detainees that are suspected of having Covid,” she said. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the Nevada Immigrant Coalition, which is composed of groups including Make the Road Nevada, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Mi Familia Vota and the  Culinary Union, have demanded ICE release detainees to prevent potential spread of Covid at facilities. 

The ACLU of Nevada also filed a lawsuit in March with similar demands as a preemptive measure ahead of any potential outbreak.  

“Our lawsuit was on behalf of two individuals who were detained at the Henderson Detention Center,” said Nikki Levy, an attorney with the ACLU of Nevada. “When we filed that lawsuit, there were 750 confirmed cases in all of Clark County. Today, there are almost 27,000 cases. The cases are spiking, but we’re not seeing the response we need from ICE.”

ICE has maintained that it follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to personal protection equipment and ensuring the safety of inmates at its facilities. 

From clients they’ve talked with, Levy said this isn’t the case in Nevada.

“We sued because we know from listening to public health experts and physicians that the only way to prevent catching this virus is to engage in a few behaviors like social distancing, wearing a mask and practicing increased hygiene,” she added. “ICE facilities are not built for that. You are not able to social distance there. In most cases, you’re crammed in with a lot of people.”

But groups don’t just want protection inside the facilities. There are still people, they argued, who should be released. 

“There are two individuals who won their immigration cases but because they decided to appeal it they are sitting there (in Southern Nevada Detention Center) like dead men ready to contract Covid,” Sull said. “It’s ridiculous. They should be released. They won a case. I highly doubt a person who wins their immigration case is a flight risk.”

On a recent visit to the Pahrump facility, Sull said employees weren’t wearing masks or taking necessary precautions mandated to prevent the spread. She argued those workers will put people at risk when they leave the facility and come into the community.  

“Nevadans are in grave danger because the Nevada Southern Detention Center and ICE are the biggest spreaders of COVID-19,” Sull said. “There is no doubt in my mind after spending 10 hours in the facility that CoreCivic and ICE employees are spreading this disease in the facility and to our communities. This conduct is outrageous and reprehensible and we risk death and more Nevadans dying and our economy being shut down by this indifference to follow CDC guidelines and the Governor’s orders.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.