As of Monday afternoon, March 16, Colorado had 160 cases of COVID-19 and experienced its first related death three days earlier. The state’s testing capacity is maxed out, but has entirely missed one population: detainees. Detention facilities are recognized incubators for infectious diseases, and in order to “flatten the curve” and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States urgently needs to decrease our incarcerated population.
We need court intervention to release convicted non-violent offenders, but one population could and should be released swiftly: asylum seekers and immigrants in the GEO-owned ICE detention facility in Aurora.
The GEO ICE Detention facility in Aurora is particularly ill-equipped to control COVID-19 spread. We know this because the office of U.S. Rep. Jason Crow (CO-6) has set up regular visits to the facility and files public reports. The most recent report, from Feb. 24, includes a question: “Number of detainees that received an initial health screening?” GEO’s answer? “unknown.” At that time, two cohorts were under quarantine, representing 138 people, or over 24 percent of detainees. One cohort was quarantined for mumps and another for flu. We can only hope it was the actual flu and not COVID-19.
GEO’s inability to prevent disease spread poses a risk — not only to the detainees —but also to the general public. To understand the present risk, public authorities should look at the history of tuberculosis (TB) in prisons. According to the World Health Organization, the level of TB in prisons is estimated to be 100 times that of the general population, and that prison transmission is directly linked to the rise of multi-drug resistant TB. The WHO also reports that detention facilities are TB reservoirs, “pumping the disease into the civilian community through staff, visitors and inadequately treated former inmates. TB does not respect prison walls.” In recent years, multi-drug resistant TB has evolved into a new, extensively drug resistant (XDR) strain, which, until last year, had no FDA approved cure.
COVID-19 is deadlier than TB. Two strains are known already, but at this point we only know how to treat the symptoms, not the illness. The only clear guidance the medical community has issued to date is that we must not give it an environment to evolve and spread. Epidemiologists are unanimous in advocating for strict hygiene measures and social distancing. The longer people remain in detention, the higher the risk they may bring a stronger version of COVID-19 with them into the general population, just has been the case with TB.
Some policymakers have proposed reducing interactions between outsiders and detainees to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 to detainees. Colorado’s Department of Corrections has suspended in-person visits and family reunification events in order to prevent the introduction of COVID-19, but that won’t prevent employees from introducing the virus.
This is not a solution. We know that one superspreader was asymptomatic as he traveled multiple countries. Prison staff can continue to jeopardize the safety of detainees and broader society as immigrants remain locked in unsafe spaces.
Instead, cash bonds should be lowered or eliminated for ICE detainees and across all detention systems, from asylum seekers in ICE detention facilities to non-violent offenders at all levels. Early release should be expedited for anyone currently eligible, and efforts should be undertaken to consider broadening eligibility. Failing to do so is inhumane, because we know from decades of epidemiological evidence that detention facilities incubate infectious diseases. Failing to decrease our detainee population is also a threat to the rest of our population.
COVID-19 is a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It requires a new playbook, and decreasing the populations of all detention facilities should be at the top of the list. Lowering or eliminating cash bonds for asylum seekers at the Aurora ICE facility is a small step in the right direction.
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