ULLIN — U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth are calling on federal oversight agencies to investigate conditions at the Pulaski County Detention Center amid a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.
In a letter sent Friday, Illinois’ two Democratic senators called on the investigatory arms of the U.S. Departments of Health & Human Services and Homeland Security to “immediately investigate urgent public health concerns” for detainees and facility staff.
Durbin and Duckworth write that they have “grave concerns” Immigration and Customs Enforcement is unnecessarily putting detainees, staff and the local community at risk and are “troubled by the potential strain that an outbreak could place on limited local health resources in this rural community.”
The senators say in the letter that Pulaski County’s jail, which houses ICE detainees under a contract with the federal government, lacks the physical layout for proper social distancing. As a result, they say, the facility has experienced “a rapid spread of [COVID-19] among detainees, some of whom have preexisting conditions causing increased risks from the disease.” The senators’ letter cites reporting by The Southern Illinoisan on conditions, and information provided to them by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a nonprofit organization that is legally representing some detainees at the facility.
In an April 25 investigative report, The Southern detailed concerns of detainees and their advocates, who said they lacked adequate access to masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies as the outbreak began. According to court records, COVID-19 was introduced into the jail following a transfer of detainees into the facility on April 1.
More recently, NIJC told the senators that ICE has released detainees without testing them for the virus, or making arrangements for their safe transport from the remote facility.
“For example, ICE reportedly released a detainee with liver failure, without first testing him for COVID-19, outside the gate of the facility without any transportation or assistance,” the letter said. “A community volunteer picked up the detainee to ensure he could attend his next dialysis appointment in Chicago. At this appointment, he tested positive for COVID-19. By then his volunteer driver, and possibly others, had been needlessly exposed to the virus.”
Neither ICE nor Jail Administrator Damon Acuff returned a phone call to The Southern on Friday seeking comment in response to the letter. Previously, ICE and county officials have said that they have followed appropriate protocols to isolate the spread of the disease and ensure that detainees and staff had adequate access to personal protective equipment.
The senators’ letter follows the efforts of several health-justice advocates to implore the Illinois Department of Public Health to take a more active role in managing the outbreak in Pulaski County. Those individuals, which include representatives from the Collaborative for Health Equity Cook County and the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, Chicago-based health justice organizations, DePaul University and the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, are circulating a petition that demands IDPH make site visits to ICE detention sites across Illinois, and specifically the facility in Pulaski County, to ensure compliance with care plans and infectious disease control.
As of Friday, ICE reported that 29 detainees in custody at the Pulaski County facility have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of staff that have tested positive is not known. The federal agency reports numbers of ICE employees testing positive for the virus, but those figures do not include local officials at facilities that operate ICE detention facilities under contract.
It’s also not clear how many detainees have recovered, as ICE does not provide this information. According to the Southern Seven Health Department, 53 people have tested positive in Pulaski County, 30 of whom have since recovered. There have been no deaths but the health department has declined to say how many of those individuals are detainees at the jail. The 10 new cases that the health department reported Friday across its seven-county area were all of Pulaski County residents. If some of those individuals are ICE detainees, the number may not have been reflected in ICE’s total reported Friday because of a lag in reporting.
The health department “does not release specific case information related to COVID-19 cases or individuals other than gender, age-range and county of residence without a court order,” said Southern Seven spokeswoman Shawnna Rhine in an email to The Southern. Southern Seven reported the original outbreak at the jail when it began in April, but then abruptly stopped providing this information without explanation.
Asked about the state’s role in containing the outbreak at the Pulaski County Detention Center, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday that the state is prohibited from inspecting federal facilities, though the jail here is owned and managed by the local government.
IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said her agency has offered consultation regarding the outbreak and has reviewed the methods that have been used to mitigate the outbreak at the detention center.
“You know, obviously, anything that happens within our state affects all the residents of the state ...,” Ezike said. “We feel that a lot of the measures and the steps in the mitigation strategy that have been employed have been appropriate.”
Members of the Collaborative for Health Equity of Cook County challenge the governor’s claim that the state can’t inspect the facilities, citing legal authority provided for them to do so under the Illinois Department of Public Health Act.
The state’s stance is an “abdication of their duty and their responsibility,” said Wesley Epplin, director of health equity at the Health & Medicine Policy Research Group, and a steering committee member of the Collaborative of Health Equity Cook County.
“I would say it’s public health malpractice in that you have the authority to protect the health of the public and to disregard this critical setting, this congregate setting, where there is much more needed on the public health front,” Epplin said.
James Bloyd, a steering committee member at the Collaborative of Health Equity Cook County in Chicago, called Pritzker’s stance “a big blind spot that really shocks the conscious.”
“[It] is completely unacceptable for the governor and for people who act as public health leaders to overlook congregate settings, where people are incarcerated,” Bloyd said. “It’s a sign of a real blatant disregard for people who are marginalized, for people of color and it really is an example of why we have some of the worst inequities in the world.”
— Reporter Molly Parker contributed this report.