Since mid-April, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has confirmed more COVID-19 cases among detained immigrants at a private prison in Natchez, Miss., than ICE had reported during the prior 13 months since the pandemic began.

On April 15, 2021, ICE reported a cumulative total of 282 cases at the facility since March 2020. The agency has confirmed another 308 cases since, bringing the cumulative total to 590 as of today.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Katherine Culliton-Gonzalez today, U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson urged the department to conduct “an expedition and thorough investigation into alleged violations of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) COVID-19 Pandemic Response Requirements at the Adams County Detention Center.” Thompson is the chair of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

While more than half of all adults in the U.S. are now vaccinated, the vaccination rate among immigrants in ICE custody stands at just 7%.

‘It Is Unacceptable For COVID-19 Outbreaks to Continue’

In a letter to ICE Field Office Director Diane L. Witte today, the American Civil Liberties Union called on the agency to provide vaccine access to immigrants detained there, saying that the “lack of transparency from ICE about the number of people detained and vaccine protocols leaves us confident that medical neglect is happening behind the detention center doors.”

“ICE’s failure to ensure a coordinated strategy for vaccination continues to endanger people in detention nationwide,” the letter reads. “ICE’s COVID-19 plan has left it to individual detention facilities to contact their state’s COVID-19 vaccine resource … to obtain vaccines.”

A dozen supporters of immigrants rights hold a yellow banner saying: "IMMIGRANT RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS" outside the federal courthouse in Jackson
Mississippi activists have long worked to raise the flag about immigrants detained in prisons in the state, including the private Adams County Correctional Center, a private prison run by CoreCivic near Natchez in southwest Mississippi. County facilities in Adams County, Miss., have held thousands of immigrants on ICE’s behalf since 2002. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The ACLU noted that the U.S. government has a surplus of vaccines and intends to export 80 million doses to other countries over the summer.

“With half of the country now vaccinated, it is unacceptable for COVID-19 outbreaks to continue to spread in detention centers,” SMART Justice Advocate at the ACLU of Mississippi Delana Tavakol said in an ACLU statement today.

Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison project, said in the statement that “ICE detention facilities have been some of the worst hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, with positivity rates five times greater than prison and 20 times greater than the general U.S. population.”

“Despite this clear, irrefutable evidence of the high risk of COVID-19 to detained people, ICE staff,and surrounding communities, the agency still has no clear plan to ensure that people in detention can be vaccinated,” Choi said. “Our government can and must ensure all detained people have access to vaccines, and quickly.”

‘An Emerging Public Health Catastrophe’

On May 17, the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity wrote to Culliton-Gonzalez and D.H.S. Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari warning that “the New Orleans ICE Field Office is creating an emerging public health catastrophe” at the Natchez facility.

“As a result, immigrants detained inside and the community surrounding ACDC are experiencing the largest COVID-19 outbreak at any ICE detention facility in the country,” the group wrote.

In his letter today, Thompson cited the Immigrant Alliance’s letter and allegations it made about safety failures at the facility.

“Allegations include staff failing to provide detainees with consistent access to soap and disinfecting supplies, detainees being grouped together in close quarters, and guards refusing to wear face masks,” Rep. Thompson wrote in a letter to DHS on May 27, 2021. “Ensuring compliance with ICE Pandemic Response Requirements is critical in protecting the health and safety of immigrants in custody, staff and Adams County residents.”/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

“Allegations include staff failing to provide detainees with consistent access to soap and disinfecting supplies, detainees being grouped together in close quarters, and guards refusing to wear face masks,” Thompson wrote. “Ensuring compliance with ICE Pandemic Response Requirements is critical in protecting the health and safety of immigrants in custody, staff and Adams County residents.

“They also allege that the New Orleans ICE Field Office regularly transfers immigrant detainees following short stays at ACDC. This practice would run counter to ICE’s Pandemic Response Requirements to discontinue transfers unless ‘necessary for medical evaluation, medical isolation/quarantine, clinical care, extenuating security concerns, release or removal, or to prevent overcrowding.”

ICE Reports Nine COVID-19 Deaths Nationwide

The Crirec has been reporting on concerns about detainee safety at the Adams County facility since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived last spring. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union, which is one of the groups in the Immigrant Alliance, called on President Joe Biden to close the Adams County Detention Center, citing allegations of abuse of detainees’ rights.

CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns the Adams facility and contracts with ICE to house detained immigrants, has denied the allegations of violence.

A Google maps image showing an aerial view of the Adams County Detention Center and its sprawling buildings surrounded by trees
The Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. / Image courtesy Google Maps

Since last year, CoreCivic has repeatedly said it was “working hard to protect our employees” and “those trusted to our care” with a “Coronavirus Medical Action Plan” including screening, social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting practices, and the use of PPE.

The company released a report detailing its COVID-19 response on May 12.

ICE has not reported any detainee deaths related to COVID-19 in the Adams County Detention Center since the pandemic’s arrival last year. In its statement today, the ACLU said that “the number of deaths due to COVID-19 was likely higher than the agency reported due to the undercounting of people who died after they were released to the hospital.”

ICE has reported more than 15,647 positive tests for COVID-19 among all immigrants in its custody at ICE facilities nationwide since February 2020, but only nine COVID-19 deaths among inmates who tested positive for the virus.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].