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Inside Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention in Texas’s Jefferson County Jail, René Escobedo González says he’s not getting enough food. ICE requires the privately run jail to serve detained immigrants three meals per day, but, in a clear effort to keep attendance low and costs down, breakfast is served at 3:30 am. Escobedo says that even if he does wake up, the meals are sparse, and often days old. Since ICE detained him in January, Escobedo has been feeling hunger pains, and he’s been forced to ask his family in Florida to constantly refill his commissary account so that he can buy ramen noodles, both for himself and for others in the detention center.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. In late March, still locked in ICE detention, Escobedo began asking his family for money so he could afford another necessity he would otherwise miss: soap.
“Soap we have to buy from the commissary,” Escobedo says. “They give us a tiny soap that is only good for one use.” He says that once a week, on Tuesday, the jail gives each person a ration of soap, but it lasts about a day. If people want more, they have to pay.
The coronavirus crisis has thrown the archipelago of ICE detention centers run by private prison companies into chaos. In an effort to cut costs, for-profit detention centers ration out goods—like soap—with the expectation that detained people will buy more with money from their commissary accounts if they run out. In many for-profit detention centers, detained people are given one bar of soap per week, for washing their hands and their bodies. In the midst of the pandemic, as detainees fear for their lives, that rationing system has collapsed. Today, washing one’s hands could mean saving one’s life or that of those around them, but Escobedo and others in ICE detention say that taking that basic step still comes at a price.
“We basically have to hunger strike to get what we need,” says Jose Miranda-Gonzalez, a man detained in Georgia’s Folkston ICE Processing center. He says that soap and cleaning products are rationed out in such meager amounts that he and other detainees have periodically stopped eating to pressure the detention center staff to provide enough supplies.
“People who can’t afford commissary can’t have enough soap to wash their hands,” Miranda-Gonzalez says. Last month, he says he bought 10 bars of soap at the commissary and cut them in half to pass out among detainees who couldn’t afford their own.
ICE and multiple for-profit detention centers have contested the allegations. A spokesperson from GEO Group, which runs the Folkston facility where Miranda-Gonzalez is locked, wrote in a statement for this article, “We strongly reject these unfounded allegations, which we believe are being instigated by outside groups with political agendas…. Our ICE Processing Centers provide access to regular handwashing with clean water and soap in all housing areas and throughout each facility.”
Responding to a request for comment, Danielle Bennet, spokesperson for ICE, pointed to a statement available on the agency’s website, which claims that ICE detention centers run by the agency itself provide ample soap. When it comes to private detention centers, the statement explains, “ICE continues to encourage facilities to follow CDC guidelines as well as those of their state and local health departments.”
“I’m not aware of any hunger strikes related to soap and hygiene products,” Bennet wrote in an e-mail.
However, that statement contrasts with multiple reports from detained immigrants who say they’ve engaged in mass protests in recent weeks demanding soap, cleaning products, and toilet paper. Besides Miranda-Gonzalez in Georgia, detained people in Washington state and Lousiana told me they’ve either taken part in or witnessed hunger strikes. In audio obtained by ProPublica last month, a detained Salvadoran man explains that his detention center—the Hudson County Correctional Facility—gives them only one bar of soap per week. They’re meant to use this small bar both for bathing and washing their hands, so it runs out quickly. In the recording, Ronal Umaña says he and others began hunger striking to pressure the detention center staff to give them soap so they can clean their hands, as well as toilet paper and other hygiene necessities.
At this point, the coronavirus has infected hundreds of thousands of Americans and killed over 50,000. One of the CDC’s most basic guidelines for avoiding COVID-19 is, of course, frequently washing one’s hands. Robyn Barnard, an asylum attorney in Southern California, says that her client contacted her and asked her to put money in his commissary so he could buy soap to wash his hands. Julie Schwietert Collazo, the director of Immigrant Families Together, says that she’s gotten requests for commissary fund grants from detained immigrants across the South who tell her they don’t have “even basic hygiene items.” Natalia Santanna, an immigration attorney based in the Bay Area, says that her clients are rationed some soap each week, but not nearly enough to wash their hands as frequently as the CDC recommends. “If they don’t pay for it from commissary, they can’t wash their hands.” And in New York, Sophia Gurulé, an immigration lawyer who serves as immigration policy counsel for the Bronx Defenders, says her organization has noted the same thing.
“A lot of our clients only get their soap by buying it from commissary,” Gurulé says. She explains that many of her clients aren’t in dedicated ICE detention centers but rather local jails that have contracts with ICE (this is the sort of detention situation Escobedo finds himself in). Still, the situation is the same: “Commissary is where they predominantly get their soap.”
Charging for Soap
Why do ICE detention centers continue to charge money for good as basic as soap during the pandemic?
While there’s no one answer to what prices look like in the commissary, detention centers do seem to have inflated margins. ICE employs different private contractors, including for-profit prison conglomerates like Geo Group, CoreCivic, and LaSalle Corrections, to run many of its facilities. But as a general rule, the prices being charged at commissaries are inflated. In 2019, a bar of Dove soap cost $2.44 in CoreCivic’s Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, according to a Reuter’s investigation; the same bar costs about a dollar at a drugstore.
However, when it comes to private detention facilities’ charging money for hygiene products, the prices themselves aren’t the whole story. The business model of these facilities isn’t necessarily to make a profit on commissary goods but rather to “motivate” immigrants into working in-detention jobs, which can pay as little as $1 per day.
R. Andrew Free is one of the attorneys who has brought multiple lawsuits (along with organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center) against corporations like CoreCivic and Geo Group. At the center of these lawsuits is a shocking allegation: Private detention centers are engaging in forced labor.
Free alleges that detention facilities create “artificial scarcity” in order to coerce the people locked inside into working in-detention jobs. Here’s how that sounds in the words of Wilhen Hill Barrientos, an asylum seeker from Guatemala whom Free and the SPLC represented in a case against CoreCivic filed in 2018: “[You] either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” Hill Barrientos said in a statement about the lawsuit.
And here’s Free describing another lawsuit he filed in a district court in California, this time representing a client detained in Adelanto, a massive Geo Group detention center in Southern California (the same facility where Robyn Barnard’s client now claims he’s forced to buy soap): “We’ve articulated this deprivation scheme,” Free says. “That claims Geo purposely skimps on basic necessities—like food soap, clean water, medicine—in order to make it so that they have a readily available workforce.”
Both Geo and CoreCivic rejected the allegations made in the forced labor lawsuits. A spokesman for Geo called the claims “unfounded,” and Amanda Gilchrist, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, wrote, “All work programs at our ICE detention facilities are completely voluntary and operated in full compliance with ICE standards, including federally established minimum wage rates for detainee volunteer labor.… CoreCivic provides detainees all basic living necessities in accordance with federal detention standards, and it does not deprive detainees of anything to coerce their participation in a work program.”
While a bevy of forced labor lawsuits have been filed against CoreCivic and Geo (starting with Free’s first salvo in 2014), all the cases are still making their way through the federal judicial system, and no ruling has yet been made one way or another. But Free notes that—despite multiple attempts from GeoGroup and CoreCivic to have the cases thrown out—no judge has dismissed any of the suits. “There have been at least 15 different decisions in which Geo or CoreCivic have tried to get a lawsuit thrown out of court, or limited in some way, and in none of them have courts agreed with the companies,” he says. He says that this is indication that multiple judges see enough compelling evidence in the allegations to continue the court proceedings.
Free says that besides creating the incentive for detained people to work, there’s little reason for prison companies to charge for goods like soap, deodorant, or cans of tuna.
“There’s no financial reason these companies couldn’t just provide all of these things for free,” he says. “The amount of commissary, those things are not a showstopper in terms of financial loss to a company if they just provided that for free.”
In private ICE detention facilities, most basic services—from meal service to custodial cleaning—couldn’t run without detained people. Unlike a government-run institution, these private companies’ missions are not to reform criminals or protect detainees while their cases wend their way through courts—the mission of these companies is to maximize profit for shareholders. This for-profit model doesn’t just entail locating the cheapest possible goods and services; it also means hiring as few people as possible.
“These facilities don’t staff even one more person than they need,” Free says, noting that, even in the best of times, they work with near-skeleton staff.
That means that, for many detention centers to run at all, the managing companies rely on detained people’s labor. For people who don’t have any family in the United States, or people on the outside who can wire money into their commissary accounts (which itself comes with shocking fees), the only way to earn money to buy goods is by working the $1-per-day jobs—an incentive many detained people say does its job of being “motivational.”
In the past decade, claims of immigrants’ being coerced into labor, or even “treated like slaves,” have been frighteningly common—though Free points out that it has not just been immigrants. One of his clients was Frank Serna, a United States citizen whom ICE picked up mistakenly and detained illegally for over 300 days.
“One of the things [Serna] told me after he got out was, ‘They were slaving us. How am I supposed to feel about myself for that kind of treatment?’” Free says.
Detention in the Age of Coronavirus
In the midst of an epochal pandemic, the business model of for-profit private detention companies has created a dangerous situation. Miranda-Gonzalez, in the Folkston ICE Processing center, says, “Guards aren’t even showing up for work anymore,” and attorneys like Gurulé say they’re worried that staffing shortages and interrupted supply chains could lead to deteriorating conditions as the pandemic goes on. And the “artificial scarcity” created by the for-profit model means that basic pandemic necessities are hard to get inside: Across the country, people in ICE detention have been reporting a severe lack of now-critical products—not just soap, but also cleaning wipes, disinfectant, and even toilet paper.
“There are times when we literally have to beg for soap,” says Marlen Seo, a woman detained in the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana, operated by Geo Group. “We are just given a four-ounce bottle to use weekly. We are not provided with any sanitary wipes for the phones that we all use, nor are we given any sanitizing lotion.” Other people detained in LaSalle say that at times they’ve resorted to cleaning the showers with shampoo.
When it comes to working these sorts of cleaning jobs, Seo also said that she and the 80 other women in her unit were—up until recently—cleaning communal spaces without any pay. It wasn’t until women that transferred in from other units told them that detained jobs pay money that they began requesting the wages owed to them.
In Escobedo’s jail in Texas—run by LaSalle Corrections, a separate company—Escobedo says that the quality of essentially all services has gone down since mid-March, when the pandemic began to hit the United States. He says they’re getting less food, and the conditions have become filthy, “like a pig sty.” He thinks it has to do directly with COVID-19 affecting staffing and supply lines.
There have also been alleged shortages of PPE. Through much of March and April, people detained in for-profit detention centers across the country reported that few, if any, guards were wearing face masks or other protective gear. Recently, private prison companies have begun providing masks in at least some detention centers, but detained people still report that guards often fail to wear the protective gear.
“I’ve talked to some of the guards and they’re scared too,” says Seo. She says that many of them have said they wish they could stay home. Other people in ICE detention elsewhere in the country have alleged that guards and staff have begun to skip work—potentially contributing to the sorts of deteriorating conditions Seo and Escobedo describe.
Seeking to fill in the gaps, immigrant advocates have tried to funnel money to detained people’s commissary accounts, so they can buy soap and other goods.
Schwietert Collazo’s organization, Immigrant Families Together, has long provided $50 grants to detained people to enhance their commissary funds. “We help them buy soap because often they’re only getting one little hotel bar per week,” she says. Schwietert Collazo says that the people with the least resources—with families who can’t help them—are the ones who are now most at risk for Covid-19, because they can’t afford soap and other goods from the commissary. Recently, she’s been fielding requests largely from Cuban asylum seekers, whose families can’t get money into their accounts.
“These stories are just heartbreaking,” Schwietert Collazo says. “People who have been detained for nine, 11 months. People who are saying I’ve never talked to my family this whole time, I’ve never been able to buy food or hygiene items this entire time.” (Detention centers charge exorbitant rates for phone calls to family and friends.)
In many facilities, to cope with the shortages, detained people will often engage in their own mutual aid efforts and share their commissary funds with others. For instance Escobedo has been buying ramen and other products for the men he’s detained with. Seo says the women who can afford commissary goods will often spread the resources around. And Miranda-Gonzelez says people share soap when they can.
“We support each other, we stick together,” he says.
According to Free, these sorts of mutual support projects are the only reason the public hasn’t heard a flood of alarms about shortages in detention centers.
“If there are places where there are not complaints, it’s because the people inside are helping each other,” he says.
Schwietert Collazo reaches a conclusion about the conditions she’s been hearing about from dozens of different detained people: “When you look at the detention center model, it’s for profit,” she says. “You want to cut costs. You do not want to actually provide care.”