Officials with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) don't see things the way a group of activists in the area do when it comes how detainees at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility are being treated in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Activists say the conditions have led to two detainees going on a hunger strike. An ICE spokesman confirmed that as of Feb. 18, there were two individuals on a hunger strike. It's unclear if that's still the case. One person familiar with the facility indicated one of the hunger strikers may have been returned to Canada.
Representatives of Justice for Migrant Families of WNY, which is based in Buffalo, claimed during a press conference on Tuesday that during the recent COVID-19 outbreak, COVID-positive patients have been kept in solitary confinment, that conditions in the facility are unsafe and represent a health threat to the Genesee County community, particularly since, in their view, detainees are being held purely for violations of immigration laws.
ICE officials dispute these allegations.
JMF played two recordings of men they said were detainees at the facility who were on hunger strike.
One man identified himself as Raul (no last name provided).
"I am doing this because I suffer from depression almost every night and I throw up and that's why I'm doing this," Raul said. "I have PTSD. I suffer a lot. And that is why I am doing this."
He added, "I want them to release me. I cannot hold on being here longer. I don't know. I suffer a lot from depression and I am afraid that I will get infected with the virus because I have heard there are a lot of infected people here."
We asked Jennifer Connor, executive director of the organization, if anybody from the group had spoken to Raul and warned him that not getting proper nutrition could weaken his immune system and potentially put him at greater risk, and she said, "The hunger strikers are putting their health at risk. They certainly are, and no one undertakes that lightly.
"It is something that people have resorted to when they are truly desperate. It's a real cry for help. They are essentially saying, 'if if you do not hear me, if you do not end this suffering, then I am going to risk my life to make my voice heard.' So I don't think people take that risk lightly."
A spokesman for ICE said facility personnel closely monitor detainees on hunger strike:
In general, ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE does not retaliate in any way against hunger strikers. ICE explains the negative health effects of not eating to our detainees. For their health and safety, ICE closely monitors the food and water intake of those detainees identified as being on a hunger strike.
ICE’s detention standards concerning hunger strikes may be reviewed here.
Raul claimed that detainees are not required to wear masks. The ICE spokesman said detainees are issued five masks upon entry and can request new masks as needed. They are required to wear them in common areas but not required to wear them in their own housing units.
Connor and Mary Rutigliano, a local resident who is a member of the Rochester Rapid Response Network, complained that contractors who work as guards at the facility as well as facility employees are not required to be tested for COVID-19.
Rutigliano expressed a lot of concern about employees coming and going from the facility as they could be asymtompatic carriers.
"(Batavia) is the gateway between the Finger Lakes Region and Buffalo," she said. "So people moving through, stopping in Batavia. That's a huge issue for two big regions in our state."
A source familiar with the facility said ICE has no authrority under the law to require anybody to get tested or to receive a vaccine.
Connor and Rutigliano both complained about COVID-positive patients being kept in solitary confinement.
According to our source, there is no such thing as "solitary confinement" at the facility.
When The Batavian toured the facility in 2018, we learned there are isolation rooms for people who might be infected with communicable diseases as well as rooms that can be used to isolate detainees involved in conflicts for a cooling off period.
Detainees, however, are not cut off from the world as they would be in solitary confinment in a prison. They retain, for example, their iPads.
The ICE spokesman said, "Individuals who are exposed to infectious illnesses are cohorted from non-affected detainees in accordance with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines. Within these separate areas they are still free to walk about and engage with each other and staff."
Previously, The Batavian was told COVID-positive detainees were cohorted in two pods and not intermingled with non-COVID detainees.
The only solution to the problems outlined by the activists, Rutigliano said, is for the population of the facility to be reduced but the facility can house more than 600 detainees. The current population is 139, or 35 percent of its capacity, the ICE spokesman said.
A source familiar with the facility said more than 80 percent of the current population are people referred to immigration by state and federal courts because of criminal cases and the rest are held by order of the immigration court. ICE is not holding people at the facility on its own authority. Since the start of the pandemic, ICE has maintained a policy of releasing everybody who can safely be released, the source said.