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My Life in ICE Detention During the Coronavirus Outbreak

“If I’m going to get the coronavirus, I’m going to get it from an officer before I get it from an inmate.”

John Moore/Getty Images

I’m originally from the Dominican Republic, but I’ve been in New York since 1993. I’m 30 years old, with a wife and two stepdaughters, and I’ve been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Hudson County Correctional Center since March 2019—so about a year and a week already.

We heard about the coronavirus while we were in the dorms, which is where we’re able to move around and interact with other inmates. It was on the news, and in a matter of a week or two our contact visits—where we are able to touch and hug visitors—were canceled, so then all visits were done through phones or glass. But the thing that I don’t understand is that you have these correction officers who go back home to their loved ones, to their families, not knowing if they have this virus or not, and end up coming back to us. So they get to go home, but we cannot interact with our own family.

That’s the first thing. Everybody was getting pretty frustrated because of that. And today, out of nowhere, they actually got everybody from the dorms and put them back in cells, where we’re locked in a small space with another person. They said we had to leave the dorms so they could fix the bathrooms. I guess they knew that if they had told us the truth, that they were moving us back to cells, it would have caused chaos, and that’s exactly what it did as soon as we got here. Supposedly it’s statewide and applies to everyone. But just this morning, on Monday, they were holding us in dorms all together.

Now, the big scenario here is it’s two tiers in the cells. You have the third floor and the fourth floor, and we rotate. The third floor is allowed to come out while the fourth floor is locked up for three hours. When the fourth floor comes out, the third floor goes back in and stays locked in for the rest of the day. They said they put us here to stop the spread of the coronavirus, so if somebody on the third floor has the coronavirus, the people on the fourth floor are less likely to get it. Pretty much we’re locked in for, I’d say, 17 to 18 hours a day now. We only have three hours to take a shower, cook, and call our loved ones. It’s still a little chaotic in here. It’s at a point where we are about to have a riot in here right now.

Everybody wanted to go on a hunger strike once they realized we were going to be locked in our cells for so long. And I had to talk to everybody and tell everybody we’re going to end up losing regardless, it’s not worth getting maced and getting put in solitary confinement because of the way they’re running things. There are certain ways for us to handle it. I told everybody to call their loved ones, to call the sanctuaries, to call their lawyers and let them know what’s going on.

I have been in here for a year. Others have been in here for six months, eight months, a year. We are not coming in and out. I think If I’m going to get the coronavirus, I’m going to get it from an officer before I get it from an inmate. I’m telling you. I asked an officer “Now with the corona, do you guys have to wash your hands as soon as you guys come in here?” He was like, No, they just told us pretty much to wash our hands when we get home and when we come out of the house. But when they come in, it’s regular, like they’re just coming to work. They come right in.

And beyond keeping the floors apart, they’re pretty much doing nothing. We should at least have some hand sanitizer, some wipes, some type of spray, and we rarely get any of that. There’s barely soap, there’s barely toilet tissue. And they’ve got this new system in the bathroom where you’re only allowed to flush the toilet twice per hour. I’m not sure if it’s to save water, if it’s to save money. I don’t know what it is.

Nobody has come to ask us, Hey, do you have any symptoms of coughing, fever, sore throat? or anything like that. They pretty much just told us that if we feel like we have symptoms, then it’s their job to take us out of here. To my knowledge, no one has gotten sick yet.

“Just wash your hands” is what they say. But it’s impossible for you to not closely interact with someone in here. This cell thing is new. A couple days ago, we were all together, all interacting, even with new people coming in. And there’s nothing special for people at higher risk. There’s somebody here who is something like 70 years old, and he’s in here with everyone else. You have people in here with massive rashes all over their bodies, people with asthma in here, people with hepatitis, everyone is mixed in all together.

They said we’re going to be in cells for 30 days at least. I’m pretty sure this is a way for us not to cause mayhem. It’s more to keep people in line and in lockdown than any medical issue. I saw a correction officer today, and he just finished coughing in front of me, and for all I know I have it already. How do I know he doesn’t have it? And you want to come up with these new rules and regulations to keep everyone locked up?

Everybody’s tired. I’m tired. To get treated the way we’ve been getting treated lately, it’s not fair. I just need to get home, that’s all, it’s gotten to a point where I’m just getting desperate and getting anxious. It’s just getting out of hand.

Two days after we spoke, my source reached out and said that correction officers were now saying that someone from the detention facility tested positive for the coronavirus. “All the detainees on my block were taken in to see the doctor without having been asked,” he said. “A person in the elevator with me said he had a fever and body aches.” ICE and the Hudson County Executive’s office deny that there has been a confirmed case of Covid-19 among the detainee population, though they acknowledge that two people are being quarantined and tested.