A new review by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has found both good and bad practices at ICE detention facilities.
This review was in response to congressional requests for a more in-depth investigation following OIG’s earlier report in June 2020. It included unannounced inspections in September and October 2020 at nine facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and Texas.
COVID-19 can spread easily in environments such as detention facilities, creating unique challenges for mitigating the risk of infection and transmission of the disease. OIG found that ICE took various actions to prevent the pandemic’s spread among detainees and staff at its detention facilities during 2020 and into 2021. At the nine facilities that OIG inspected remotely, these measures included maintaining adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, enhanced cleaning, and proper screening for new detainees and staff.
However, OIG found other areas in which detention facilities struggled to properly manage the health and safety of detainees. For example, inspectors observed instances where staff and detainees did not consistently wear face masks or socially distance. It was also noted that some facilities did not consistently manage medical sick calls and did not regularly communicate with detainees regarding their COVID-19 test results.
According to OIG, ICE was able to decrease the detainee population to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but information about detainee transfers was limited.
Further, the review found that testing of both detainees and staff was insufficient, and that ICE headquarters did not generally provide effective oversight of its detention facilities during the pandemic.
The number of detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19 has risen from 345 on March 1, 2021, to 860 on June 1, 2021, a 149 percent increase. Given the current pandemic situation, it is possible this figure will be higher today. In light of both the ongoing pandemic and the threat of new ones, ICE needs to resolve the issues highlighted by OIG to ensure it can meet challenges today and in the future. To this end, OIG is making six recommendations:
- Ensure detention facilities meet ICE’s COVID-19 requirements in the pandemic response requirements (PRR), including the wearing of masks by detention facility staff; testing of all new arrivals to ICE detention facilities for COVID-19; and transfers of detainees for reasons allowed by the PRR only.
- Revise the cohort tracking report to differentiate between cohorts of detainees with confirmed cases of contagious diseases and those with suspected cases or who have been in contact with confirmed cases of contagious diseases.
- Develop specific guidance regarding communication with detainees regarding their medical conditions and care and ensure facilities implement this guidance.
- Ensure completion of custody redeterminations for high-risk detainees and appropriately track custody redeterminations in ICE’s data systems.
- Ensure all detention facilities that conduct whole-facility testing have submitted plans to ICE and that these plans have been approved.
- Implement and track corrective action plans related to discrepancies found during the monthly spot checks.
ICE concurred with each of the recommendations and requested that some be closed due to work already underway in those areas. However OIG has left the recommendations open while awaiting evidence and documentation.