Nearly a year into a pandemic that has taken more than 370,000 lives nationwide, the Calhoun County Jail in southwestern Michigan continues to place the people held there in grave danger because “fundamental, structural issues remain that Calhoun has either overlooked or explicitly chosen to ignore.”
That devastating assessment comes from Dr. Homer Venters, an expert witness in an ongoing class action lawsuit intended to win the release of medically vulnerable immigrants being held at the facility under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Last April, the ACLU of Michigan, national ACLU and law firm Paul Weiss filed the class action lawsuit against ICE in federal court on behalf of immigrants detained in the Calhoun County Jail—the largest ICE detention site in Michigan with approximately 130 immigrants detained there—during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. The legal organizations seek the immediate release of people who are in civil detention and, due to age and/or significant medical conditions, are at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection. So far, more than 40 people, have been released on bail because of the action.
An expert inspection and report were ordered done by U.S. District Court Judge Judith E. Levy, who is presiding over the class action lawsuit, following COVID-19 outbreaks at the jail in October and November, when the virus rapidly infected many of those detained.
Dr. Venter’s report, submitted this month, involved an extensive review of jail records as well as an eight-hour facility inspection that included interviews with both people being detained and staff.
Judge Levy will use the report to decide on future releases. ICE has claimed that immigrants are now safe at Calhoun County Jail and so they should not be released, but the report shows clearly that is not true. Because immigrants can sit in jail for months while fighting deportation, noncitizens being held at Calhoun are put at significantly greater risk than the general jail population, which can cycle in and out of the facility with much more frequency. An analysis of jail records between May and December 2020 shows that 47 of the 72 positive cases (65 percent) identified at the jail were immigrants detained by ICE, even though they comprised only 17 percent of the people who passed through the jail during the nine-month period.
Especially precarious is the situation for immigrants with underlying health conditions that put them in significantly greater jeopardy if exposed to the coronavirus.
“For individuals who face a higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, this setting presents a serious danger because Calhoun is unlikely to prevent the entry of new infections and, more importantly, does not have the systems in place to adequately catch and prevent transmission of new infections…,” reported Dr. Venters, a physician and epidemiologist who specializes in matters related to medical care of incarcerated people.
The report contains specific examples of outrageous disregard for the wellbeing of people held at the jail. Particularly shocking is the story of one person assigned the job of delivering food trays throughout the facility.
“He told the administrator in charge of the work details that he felt ill on October 13 and was seen by a physician that day,” according to the report. “The detainee was worried he had COVID-19 because he had a runny nose, sore throat and body aches. He also told the physician about the other tray runner … who was ill in his housing area and stated that health staff needed to go check him out. The physician assessed him as being dehydrated and needing to drink more water but told him that he should return to his normal duties as tray runner that day, without any COVID-19 testing.
“The detainee felt progressively ill over the following three days and reported this to the facility staff, but he was told to work regardless, going between different housing units. He was not tested or checked for COVID-19 signs or symptoms until Saturday evening, October 17, after his shift ended and he was finally taken back to the medical clinic to be tested for COVID-19.”
The test came back positive, meaning the man was allowed to continue moving throughout the entire facility for at least four days while contagious with the virus after first seeking medical help and asking to be tested.
Another tray runner, who became ill around the same time, was deported to Guatemala without being tested or transferred to medical isolation, according to the report.
Another cause for concern is a lack of transparency and candor on the part of jail officials.
There were multiple instances of officials claiming one thing and the people being detained contradicting those claims.
To cite just one example, Dr. Venters noted that he was told by jail officials that, “in instances when detained people were identified as potentially having COVID-19, there was a cleaning protocol in place to have specially trained security staff clean the living spaces where those people had been housed, and that specially trained detainee cleaning crews may also engage in this work.”
People being detained had a radically different account of what really happened. They told Dr. Venters that, after people diagnosed with COVID-19 were removed from their units, that no such cleaning occurred.
“I asked about special cleaning of areas where COVID-19 positive detainees had been sleeping, and nobody had ever seen correctional staff or any work details of detained people clean these areas after someone left for medical isolation,” Dr. Venters reported.
Several people reported that the hand sanitizer stations were recently installed, had quickly run out of hand sanitizer, were empty for at least two weeks, and were refilled just a day or two before the inspection,” according to the report. “One detainee reported asking security staff about the refilling of these dispensers and reported being told that it would be refilled ‘for Christmas.’”
In general, Dr. Venters said, “I was struck by the extreme discrepancies between what Calhoun staff and detainees reported. I was also struck by the consistency of the reports among the detainees and inmates whom I interviewed. In my experience, consistent reports by multiple detainees is a good indicator of the actual practices in a facility, and is a more accurate reflection of day-to-day practices than the ‘cleaned-up’ version of a facility that is typically presented during a tour itself.”
These same types of concerns also extended to safety precautions being taken by medical personnel, who work for a for-profit company contracted to provide healthcare at the facility.
“All but one person I spoke with about the fingertip pulse oximetry devices (used to measure blood oxygen saturation levels) reported that they were not cleaned or disinfected between uses by different patients,” Dr. Venters reported. “A person I spoke with had been in a quarantine setting when COVID-19 screenings were occurring and reported that he had filed multiple grievances with the health staff concerning their failure to wipe down or otherwise clean or disinfect the pulse oximetry devices between uses. He reported being told by health staff that they did not have adequate supplies to clean or disinfect the pulse oximetry device between uses and that it was his responsibility to wash his hands after COVID-19 screenings.”
Taken as a whole, the report submitted by Dr. Venters offers compelling proof that the lives of immigrants being held at the Calhoun County Jail are being unnecessarily placed at risk. Given the jail’s dismal record dealing with two major outbreaks that occurred late last year, and its concerted efforts to conceal the truth about what’s actually happening at the facility, he has little confidence people running the jail and the facility’s medical personnel will do a better job going forward.
“My most serious concerns are that the recent outbreaks … reflect a lack of response to multiple people reporting clear COVID-19 symptoms to health and security staff, that the facility’s health service does not recognize the danger of this inaction almost one year into the pandemic, and that after many rounds of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on the necessary life-saving measures, Calhoun has still failed to implement those measures,” Dr. Venters reported.
He added that, “Calhoun is ill-equipped to catch the next set of cases among the general population, which could quickly lead to further infection. While Calhoun was fortunate not to have seen any hospitalizations or deaths from the recent outbreaks, detainees are still experiencing long-term side effects from their illnesses (which the facility is also failing to monitor), and Calhoun may not be so lucky in future outbreaks. The threat of the new, more transmissible strain of COVID-19 provides even more cause for concern for high-risk individuals in a setting like Calhoun.”