Thirty-seven-year-old Marcial is at home and providing again for his family of six. We won’t say his last name because he’s worried about legal repercussions for what he’s about to share. The Guatemalan native spent more than a month in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, mostly at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
“The only time they cleaned during my time there was when an inspector was coming to the facility,” he says. “They put paper towels and hand sanitizer stations so they wouldn’t fail the inspection.”
The agency’s COVID-19 guidance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus includes tracking and testing for the disease, releasing non-criminal detainees with a higher risk of infection and isolating those showing symptoms.
For Marcial, it all started in March when he was arrested and charged with a DUI. He appeared in court two weeks later. His charges were dismissed, but he was told ICE was on its way.
“They 'cuffed me and first took me to Burlington and I was there for three hours," he said. "Then they transferred me to Charlotte for four hours. From there, they sent me straight to Stewart."
Marcial has lived in the U.S. since he was 18 and says this was his first encounter with ICE. He says he’d heard stories about being in an ICE detention center, but that it’s worse than he imagined -- even more so during a pandemic.
He slept in a unit of 30 bunk beds shared with other detainees, which made social distancing hard.
In his last few days, a detainee arrived from a nearby county jail.
“He was already sick [with coronavirus] and he got his bunkmate from Honduras sick,” he said.
Marcial says staff did wear masks, but he and other detainees ripped up clothing to use as masks. Social distancing was only possible when they were isolated if they showed COVID-19 symptoms.
“People got really mad and tried to riot," he said. "They were making a lot of noise and yelling. They tied up the ones rioting and they kept them tied up for almost two hours. Before that, they’d tear gassed the unit to make them stop.”
Soon after, officers told him he was being released. He was allowed to call his family for the first time since his arrival. Twelve hours later, his wife arrived in Lumpkin to take him home.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone because, well, honestly, they just treat us very badly, first of all," he said. "And it’s just not right to treat other people that way. We’re all human and we have basic rights just like everyone else. I really don’t know why they’d treat anyone like that. It’s just not right.”
Attorney Marty Rosenbluth represented Marcial in court. The firm he works for, Polanco Law, is based in Durham, but he lives and works most of the year in Lumpkin. He says his satellite office is the only physical immigration attorneys office in Lumpkin, which is about 140 miles south of Atlanta.
“The reality is that ICE uses incarceration in these remote locations as a litigation strategy because they know that if they keep people here in the middle of nowhere, where they don't have access to attorneys -- where it's very hard for them to see their families -- that people are much more likely to quit,” Rosenbluth said.
“The fact that this is being allowed to happen, that the government is knowingly and willingly exposing people to this deadly virus and they just don't care? It's a travesty," Rosenbluth said. "It's outrageous. There's no other way to describe it."
As of July 13, 1,175 detainees and 45 ICE employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
Click here for the latest coronavirus news on WFAE’s live blog.
Sign up here for The Frequency, WFAE’s daily email newsletter.
What questions do you have about the coronavirus? What has this experience been like for you? Share your questions below.