North Carolina Health News
Nehel Gaya’s father has traveled so much during the pandemic, she’s having trouble keeping up.
The South Carolina resident had received calls from Georgia, Texas, Louisiana -- whatever immigrant detention facility her father, a Pakistani citizen, happened to be transferred to next.
Well into the pandemic, one of those places was a local North Carolina jail.
Alamance County Detention Center, a facility about an hour outside Raleigh, currently has over 120 COVID-19 cases. It’s the only jail in North Carolina that, under a special service agreement, can temporarily house migrant detainees on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The federal agency continues to transfer immigrant detainees across the country, to and from places like the Alamance lockup. Critics credit these comings and goings that take place as a result of the ICE partnership with contributing to the spread of COVID-19 inside that facility and other jails.
“The [Alamance] jail has become the ICE processing center of North Carolina,” said Andrew Willis Garcés, director of Siembra NC, an organization that advocates for the rights of immigrants in the state and in detention.
Gaya’s father Imrhan, who has high blood pressure and high cholesterol, was picked up by ICE after being in the U.S. for more than 15 years. He had an asylum claim that was denied by the U.S., but he had continued living here.
Imrhan was transferred into Alamance from Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, an ICE facility that had an active outbreak. Somewhere in his travels, he contracted COVID-19.
A migrant’s death
At least one death can be traced to a transfer from Alamance to another detention center with an ongoing outbreak.
Jose Guillén-Vega, a 70-year-old Costa Rican man, was briefly held at the jail before ICE moved him on July 15, according to Mark Dockery of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
He was sent to Stewart Detention Center in rural Georgia, a for-profit facility that has had an outbreak since April, with 323 total cases. He was awaiting deportation after serving time on a felony conviction when he was picked up by ICE in North Carolina. He, too, contracted the virus during his travels in the detention system and died on Aug. 10.
ICE said they were required by federal law to detain Guillén-Vega prior to his deportation to his home country, but North Carolina immigration advocates decry the Alamance jail’s role in his death.
“It’s totally optional to be a part of the machinery of detention and deportation,” said Garcés.
He noted the vast majority of local jails have said they're not going to sign ICE jail agreements in any form. Participating sheriff’s departments “round our people up for non-criminal activity. Jails are oriented around criminal laws, and ICE is about federal civil immigration law.”
A few days before Guillén-Vega’s death, James Hill, a 72-year-old Canadian citizen who was arrested by ICE in North Carolina, died after contracting COVID-19 in a Virginia detention facility. It is, however, the first time a local jail has confirmed it housed an inmate who died during their deportation process.
The current outbreak is plaguing the entire population of the Alamance County Detention Center, which includes local U.S. citizens, ICE detainees and federal prisoners brought in by the U.S. Marshals Service. Some are pre-trial detainees who have not yet been convicted of a crime, but can’t make bail and so remain locked up.
The Alamance County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the facility, declined to comment on the number of COVID-19-positive inmates within each group. Nine staff and 112 incarcerated people currently have the virus, which was first reported on Aug. 24.
Prior to these positive cases, Alamance County’s jail reported no previous COVID-19 outbreak.
Since June, the sheriff’s office repeatedly declined to provide North Carolina Health News the number of tests it had conducted within the facility or its policy around when people incarcerated inside were tested.
“Since March, the Alamance County Detention Center has instituted early screening and testing of inmates and detainees as well as increased sanitation and cleaning of all facilities,” Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson told NC Health News in a recent emailed statement.
County jails, unlike the state’s prisons, are not required to test inmates or report testing numbers to the public.
“There's no COVID-specific oversight,” said Luke Woollard, staff attorney at Disability Rights NC, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, who are overrepresented in North Carolina’s county jails.
State prisons have been required to do mass testing on inmates as the result of an ongoing lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety, the agency which oversees the prison system. However, this mandate does not apply to jails in North Carolina’s 100 counties, which are each run by locally elected sheriffs.
Since the discovery of its outbreak on Aug. 24, the Alamance jail has been working to implement mass testing, according to Byron Tucker, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.
Calls for action
The detention center joins a spate of other North Carolina jails that experienced new outbreaks last month.
Community organizers in counties such as Durham have begun to call for health department officials to require transparency and mandatory reporting of their jail’s testing numbers.
In Alamance, the outbreak adds to controversy for the county, which has seen protests over its history of racial violence, its Confederate monuments and renewed partnerships with ICE, and allegations of Sheriff Johnson’s disparate treatment of anti-racist protesters and pro-Trump counter-protesters.
People of color are overrepresented in county jails, and Alamance is no exception.
On Tuesday, four people were arrested outside Alamance County Detention Center while protesting conditions inside the COVID-riddled jail, allegedly for holding up signs while standing in the jail’s parking lot or cursing. They too were placed inside the facility for a few hours before their release.
“If they didn’t want to expose people to coronavirus, there's no reason that a police officer would have to arrest someone [for standing in the parking lot] as opposed to giving them a ticket or citation,” said Lindsay Ayling, a PhD history student at the University of North Carolina who said she attended the protest and watched people being arrested.
She said holding people who haven’t been convicted of a crime in a place with a COVID outbreak is “an issue of human rights.”
“It was just a regular peaceful protest,” she said. “Any arrest can turn into a death sentence.”
Meanwhile, transfers continue out of the Alamance County Detention Center -- two of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 have been moved to other facilities, according to Tucker.
“With these new positive cases identified, the Sheriff’s Office is committed to aggressively working with our Health Department to protect our staff and those entering our jail,” Sheriff Johnson said in a statement emailed to NC Health News. “Our staff and medical professionals are implementing more stringent health monitoring, the distribution of masks and hygiene kits, and providing ongoing COVID-19 testing. Our priority continues to be the safety of our staff, inmates, and detainees, and we are doing everything in our power to protect those in our care.”
Gaya’s father, who contracted COVID-19 after being transferred from Alamance to Stewart Detention Center, is still on the move. After several more transfers across the South and a long wait, he boarded a flight back to Pakistan on Tuesday, according to Gaya.
North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.