In Farmville, at the immigrant detention center with the nation’s worst COVID outbreak, company higher-ups lead a “double life,” affecting good citizenship while monetizing the abuse of Virginia’s most vulnerable.
Since their relationship began in 2010, Edwin García Rogel had loved María Mayorquín’s four children from a previous marriage as if they were his own. He drove them to school, bought presents for their birthdays, and dressed up like Santa Claus for the family on Christmas day. When Mayorquín’s health deteriorated in 2013, García cared for and supported her, driving her to appointments with her specialist and picking up the slack around the house. Until the early February morning when an ICE Officer entered Mayorquín and García’s Alexandria home and took García away, Mayorquín told me, her husband had always been there for her. Now, however, he is awaiting deportation in ICA-Farmville — an immigrant prison with the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country — and Mayorquín feels powerless to help him.
“He’s experienced fever, vomiting, fainting,” Mayorquín said of her husband, who has tested positive for COVID-19 in a facility where 90 percent of detainees are COVID-positive, and one man with coronavirus recently died. “The guards don’t do anything. All they do is say, ‘Go back to sleep and everything will be fine.'”
“The worst place he’d ever been”
Though Immigration Centers of America’s (ICA) checkered history begins far earlier, the story of ICA-Farmville’s staggeringly poor pandemic response starts in late March, when a detained man with asthma and diabetes first exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. As symptoms spread, over 100 prisoners went on hunger strike to protest the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, and adequate medical care. ICA responded by placing the strike’s organizers in “administrative segregation.” Then, on June 2, ICE transferred 74 people to ICA from hotspot detention facilities in Florida and Arizona, and all hell broke loose.
Throughout June, the virus spread rapidly through the facility. It took until July 2 for staff to test all of ICA’s 366 detainees, and when results were in, only 19 tests came back negative. 22 guards tested positive and a handful of ICA detainees were hospitalized. One of them, an elderly Canadian named James Hill, died in ICA custody on August 6 after testing positive for COVID-19. As a non-violent felon, Hill had spent 14 years in a federal prison, but he told his daughter Verity Hill that ICA-Farmville was “the worst place he’d ever been.”
“I just can’t believe they didn’t isolate the sick people,” Verity Hill told The Vancouver Courier. “I think they just think some people deserve to die.”
Four plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit say their requests for medical assistance at ICA have fallen on deaf ears. ICA staff waited days to test the plaintiffs even though all were experiencing common COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, aches, coughing, and difficulty breathing, according to a court declaration filed by the prosecution. Staff also denied the plaintiffs medical care for days on end. One of them, Perez Garcia, was quarantined in an isolation unit because of his severe symptoms. The others were only given Tylenol as treatment.
“Many folks have expressed fear because they don’t receive care,” said Danny Cendejas from the immigrant rights group La ColectiVA. “Instead, if people are sick and confirmed, they would be placed in the hole, in isolation, which is also psychological violence.”
Court evidence and reports from advocates also suggest an ongoing disregard for COVID-19 precautions and basic sanitation in the facility. Detained individuals eat in dining areas that do not easily accommodate physical distancing, sleep close together in crowded rooms full of stacked bunks, and are sometimes served expired or bug-infested food. When they resist staff, their protests are sometimes met with blasts of pepper spray. One detainee described watching people clean up their own vomit and diarrhea to prevent the stench from lingering in the dormitories.
“It’s amazing to me that this would not have been done in a facility, which, because of the large inmate population, should have been on clear notice that you’ve got to have people distanced in order to prevent spread of the virus,” said Judge Leonie Brinkema during a recent court hearing.
The community cost of criminalizing immigrants
About six years ago, Maria Mayorquín’s health began deteriorating. Her platelet levels dropped, her hands changed color, and it became difficult to breathe. While hospitalized in Alexandria, she underwent a splenectomy and a blood transfusion — “15 bags of blood,” Mayorquín told me. Around three years later, a doctor diagnosed Mayorquín with Lupus, an autoimmune illness that causes the body to attack its own organs. She was unable to work with her condition, making García the breadwinner for the family. Six months into his incarceration, Mayorquín’s anger and grief are compounded by her ever-growing debts.
“What am I supposed to do without him?” she asked, her voice breaking. “I am not going to be able to live without him in this country, paying so many bills, paying so much rent. I won’t be able to pay all of it. I want them to give me my husband back. Please, I am begging ICE to free my husband.”
Mayorquín, a US citizen, does not know what she will do if her husband is deported to El Salvador. She fears the violence there — violence seeded by U.S. foreign policy — and doubts she will find the medical care she needs if she moves abroad. In the meantime, she has started a Facebook campaign to free her husband called Devuelvánme Edwin.
According to Reverend Leonina Arismendi Zarkovic, a co-founder and organizer for Santos en Virginia, stories like Mayorquín’s are heartbreakingly common. “It leaves you in a space of utter desperation,” said Arismendi, whose partner was incarcerated for a non-immigration-related offense for three years.
As people watch their neighbors taken away, fear spreads through immigrant communities. “[People] are afraid to go to work, they’re afraid to go to the doctor,” said Arismendi, who also has lived experience as an undocumented person. “There have been times in my life where I didn’t call the police when I was having domestic abuse being done to me by my ex-husband. Because I knew that if the police came, they will put me in handcuffs quicker than him, because I didn’t have papers.”
A Long History of Abuse
Most of ICA’s failures in response to the pandemic did not begin with the coronavirus. As ICE reports recently acquired by the Advancement Project corroborate, ICA has a long history of medical neglect and abuse. In 2011, a staff person was crushed to death by guards during a training simulation. Later that same year, a detained man died after nurses failed to take his vital signs. In addition, the recently released reports describe several incidents where guards used pepper-spray or restrained prisoners without justification, including an incident where a guard pepper-sprayed a detainee in the face “while he was in full restraints and confined to a medical isolation cell.”
When I emailed ICE to ask about current and past issues at ICA, Acting Field Office Director Matthew Munroe replied with a statement: “The agency provides comprehensive medical care to all individuals in ICE custody and uses a multi-layered inspections and oversight program to ensure its facilities meet a threshold of care, in addition to abiding by standards set forth in the National Detention Standards and the Performance-Based National Detention Standards,” it read, in part. “ICA Farmville has never failed an inspection.”
But according to Jesse Franzblau from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), ICE reports are highly unreliable. An NIJC analysis of 2017 data found that every ICE jail and prison has passed every inspection since 2012, “even at facilities where multiple people had died, some as a result of medical neglect.” A 2018 Inspector General report, informatively titled “ICE’s Inspections and Monitoring of Detention Facilities Do Not Lead to Sustained Compliance or Systemic Improvements,” confirms that ICE inspections more often serve to obscure and perpetuate abuse than to address it. By ICE employees’ own admission, inspections were “useless” and “very, very, very difficult to fail.”
The immigrant-detention complex
Though most people associate the for-profit detention boom with state and federal prisons, immigrant prisons are a fast-growing sector of the country’s private-prison market. Currently, around 70 percent of ICE detention centers are operated by for-profit companies like ICA. Many ICE-operated detention centers also have concerning infection rates, but of the ICE facilities with over 150 COVID cases, every single one is privately operated.
Like other for-profit prison enterprises, Immigration Centers of America targets economically struggling communities for possible detention centers. In 2008, when ICA opened for business, the company promised to bring jobs to Farmville, a community left reeling by the recession and a decline in manufacturing jobs. In the decade that followed, ICA created over 100 local jobs and brought in around $200,000 in yearly income for the town.
Through their contract with ICE, ICA and the Town of Farmville profit handsomely — together they billed ICE for around $24 million dollars in 2019, according to Franzblau — but a number of sub-contractors, lobbyists, and sympathetic politicians also get their share of the pie. In the twelve years since the company started, ICA and its subcontractors have invested considerable sums of money in candidates and lobbying consultants on both sides of the aisle. Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli received thousands of dollars directly from both ICA and its current CEO. Democratic state delegate Alfonso Lopez received wages from ICA from 2013 to 2016, and Armor Correctional Health Services, an ICA subcontractor, contributed $25,000 to Governor Ralph Northam’s Inaugural Committee in 2018.
Until recently, it seems, Farmville residents and elected officials have mostly been content to watch ICA and its subcontractors make a killing while the Town collects its share through its agreement with ICE and ICA. “It’s been a quiet place out on the outskirts of Farmville that you really don’t hear much about,” Town Councilperson Greg Cole said.
Coronavirus fears, however, may have disturbed this equilibrium. Jacqueline James Hamlette, a Cumberland County resident who lives 20 minutes from the prison, told me her humanitarian concerns are compounded by her fears of employees spreading COVID in the community. She no longer drives into Farmville to shop, she said, because she worries about her immuno-compromised son. “I would like for the Center to be held accountable for their actions and to stop downplaying that severity of this,” said Hamlette. “That’s extremely important to me.”
At a recent City Council meting, Cole expressed similar frustrations, and said he feared for the safety of residents at The Woodland, a local retirement home at which he is President and CEO. ICA-Farmville’s Director Jeffrey Crawford tried to calm such fears, telling the Council that recent media accounts were overblown.”We understand the claims of the detainees on their face seem horrible,” he said, “but I can tell you that I have been present at the facility through the entire ordeal, and it was not a dire situation.”
Pharisees of the first order
Since its inception, a series of prominent Richmond-area businesspeople have rotated through leadership positions at ICA. Many of these individuals are involved in the philanthropic or faith community in central Virginia. Current CEO Russell Harper lives in Henrico and serves on the boards of various local non-profits, while Warren Coleman — former CFO and current CEO of an ICA transportation subcontractor — is President and CEO of the JMU Foundation. Jeffrey Crawford, ICA’s Director, is a pastor and podcast contributor for All Peoples Church in Lynchburg. On All Peoples’ biweekly podcast, you can hear the man who described ICA’s 90% infection as “not dire” discussing “The Love of God.”
“They’re at church listening to the same sermon and the same scriptures that here at Santos we heard,” Arismendi said of ICA’s investors. “And Jesus said, ‘We have to set the captives free, we have to bring good news to the poor, we have to bind the brokenhearted.'”
On Tuesday morning, two local activists groups, Free Them All Virginia and Drop The Charges RVA, launched a social media campaign asking people to contact organizations affiliated with major ICA investors. The campaign’s targets are Harper, Coleman, and original ICA minority investor Ken Newsome, who allegedly divested his shares of the company in January.
“These are people in our community that are living a double life,” Arismendi said of ICA executives like Coleman and Harper. “You seen their homes? They nice. They’re comfortable. They don’t have to give a second thought about people eating food with maggots in it, or choking to death because they can’t breathe. They just go home and they extract themselves from that with the luxury that this for-profit flesh machine has created.”
From the quaint downtown of Farmville, with its town clock and prim red-brick storefronts, to the scenic luxury of Harper and Newsome’s million-dollar waterfront vacation homes overlooking the mouth of the Rappahanock River in White Stone, the double-life Arismendi is describing is hard to fathom. It feels like something out of a David Lynch film, where grotesque violence and cheery suburban affluence live side by side. In White Stone, VA, the Chesapeake Bay glistens, deep and green, along the shore where the Harpers and the Newsomes pose for photo-ops. Meanwhile, María Mayorquín and thousands like her don’t know if they will ever see their loved ones again.
RVA Mag reached out to the Farmville Town Manager for comment but was informed by the Town’s communications office that he was on vacation. We contacted ICA and were referred to ICE’s media spokesperson.
Top Photo via CAIR Coalition April Lawsuit