Update 5/14/20: IPR has learned the inmate hunger strike mentioned in the following story ended on May 13.
As several hundred prisoners from California saturate North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, more than 100 inmates started a hunger strike, refusing food until they’re tested for COVID-19.
All of this is happening as cases of coronavirus double at the immigrant prison.
IPR spoke with two inmates, family members and No Detention Centers in Michigan, an immigrant advocacy group, about the issues.
Prison slow to treat ill inmates, some allege
No Detention Centers in Michigan says at least one unit at the prison, with 110 inmates, began refusing meals Friday, May 8.
That’s the same day the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that 18 inmates tested positive for COVID-19, which was the first time that information was made public by the BOP.
GEO Group is the private prison operator of North Lake, and it confirmed that 16 of its facility staff tested positive as well, with six recovering at home.
Two incarcerated immigrants at North Lake told IPR that fellow inmates showing symptoms of the COVID-19 aren’t being tested unless they have a high fever. They say inmates are only removed from shared cells after they become extremely ill.
GEO Group says it is monitoring the inmates who were exposed to the infected guards. But, the company won’t specify how many have been tested.
Inmate Jose Sanchez is six years into his 12-year sentence for possessing methamphetamine he intended to sell.
He told IPR in a call from the prison that people don’t get medical care when they need it.
“Last week, (prison staff) just took two of (the prisoners),” he says, noting that they weren’t cared for until after they asked multiple times for help. “They were really sick and they kept on asking to get seen. And they wouldn’t come and see them.”
He says after they finally took them, those sick inmates haven’t returned to their cells.
No Detentions Center in Michigan says one inmate said he watched a man collapse, frothing at the mouth, before he was taken away. The same inmate told the group he was also experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms including red eyes, a mild fever and loss of smell. He was screened by a doctor who determined he did not have a fever, and he was not tested for COVID-19.
No Detention Centers say inmates have observed deaths from what they believe is the coronavirus, but so far no COVID-19 deaths are listed on the BOP’s website.
Inmate Ricardo Limon has three years remaining on his 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit drug trafficking. He says prisoners who complain of pain or sickness are given ibuprofen and do not get a full exam.
GEO Group denies the allegations.
“We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness, and we reject efforts by outside groups to advance politically motivated agendas in the face of the unprecedented health crisis facing our country,” GEO Group spokesperson Christopher Ferreira said in a statement.
North Lake receives prisoners from California
The outbreak comes as several hundred prisoners from Taft Correctional Institution in Bakersfield, California were transferred to North Lake in April after it closed.
Bipartisan California lawmakers tried to fight the transfers, saying it was too great a risk to move prisoners during the pandemic.
In a statement, GEO Group says they have no control over transfers to the facility.
“To be clear, our company plays no role in determining which individuals are transferred to the North Lake Correctional Facility, which exclusively houses non-U.S. citizens convicted of federal crimes. Such decisions are made exclusively by the federal government. Furthermore, correctional facilities around the country and in the state of Michigan are not immune to the impact of COVID-19 and face similar challenges in mitigating the risk of COVID-19.”
The federal BOP says it has reduced prisoner transport recently, citing movement is down by 95 percent, compared to this time last year. The agency says it allows movement only in a few situations, none of which, as of May 8, included a transfer between BOP facilities.
But since then, the BOP has updated its website to add another exception.
“To be clear, the BOP may need to move inmates to better manage the detention bedspace as well as assure that administrative facilities do not become overcrowded beyond available resources,” the updated policy notes.
Some of the transferred inmates arrived at North Lake in early April, days before the full facility went into lockdown to stop the further spread of the virus. Still, more cases of the disease were found.
On April 20, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported nine inmates with positive COVID-19 results. With the newly published data from BOP, that number doubled in three weeks.
In contrast to private federal prisons, such as North Lake, testing at Michigan Department of Corrections prisons has revealed many previously unknown COVID-19 cases among inmates. The state has tested nearly 12,000 prisoners, with more than 2,000 testing positive for COVID-19.
Hunger strike amid already poor diets
Meanwhile, inmates at North Lake say they are restricted to their cells 23 hours a day so that the disease doesn’t spread.
The food they’ve been given, they say, is often delivered frozen and lacking nutrients. They say sometimes meat has been served spoiled, they are given frozen sandwiches, and at times they don’t have enough food.
Jose Sanchez’s daughter, Vanessa Sanchez, told IPR that her father helps deliver meals throughout the prison, and has seen the facility run out of meals on several occasions.
“Most of the time they’re short (on food) so he won’t eat,” Sanchez says of her father. “And another guy that (passes out meals) won’t eat either. They’ll tell the (corrections officers) that they’re short but they won’t... figure it out until the next shift gets in.”
She says Jose was transferred to North Lake on April 6. Within a few days of arriving, the facility went into lockdown to deal with the coronavirus. She says he didn’t get soap for a month.
“He said a lady came in to try to fill their soap container and she asked where it was and he said they didn’t have one, that they didn’t get one from the beginning,” Sanchez says. “She was kind of surprised how they didn’t have one.”
GEO Group disputes the allegations. The company says North Lake provides access to regular handwashing with clean water and soap in housing areas, provides 24/7 access to healthcare, and has isolation rooms available for inmates with COVID-19.