Long-time U.S. resident Shemoi Edwards looks on after release from immigration jail. Edwards, like many others, was locked in solitary confinement because of Covid-19. Photo by Cydni Elledge
During an outbreak at Etowah County Detention Center, immigrants say solitary confinement was also used as medical isolation, against ICE guidelines.
Reported in partnership with The Intercept
Inside his cell at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., Karim Golding began feeling sick one day in June 2020. He had a fever, a pounding headache, cold sweats, an “onion burning sensation” behind his eyes and he was sleeping for days on end. When he finally felt well enough to emerge, “the entire unit” was sick, Golding recalls. “Everybody have some symptom or the other.”
Three months earlier, as The Intercept reported in April, Golding, who has asthma, was a lead organizer of a protest inside the jail, pushing for stronger precautions to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Now, as Golding looked around, he realized their worst fears had come true.
Etowah contracts with the federal government to hold people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To prevent becoming a Covid-19 hotspot, Etowah claims (in court documents) it follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — including quarantining new arrivals, implementing social distancing measures and providing cleaning supplies. But Golding and more than a dozen other people detained by ICE say the measures taken were more than just inadequate — they led to a massive Covid-19 outbreak.
Seven of them say people were given a single disposable mask to last for three weeks. One shares a photo of what he says were the only “cleaning supplies” he received — a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb and combo shampoo/body wash — which came inside a gift bag emblazoned with the words “Merry Christmas” from the Salvation Army.
Immigrants detained inside Etowah also say many new arrivals were housed in quarantine for only five days or eight days — rather than the recommended two weeks — potentially allowing the virus to spread inside the jail. According to a partial Etowah roster obtained by The Intercept and In These Times, ICE transferred at least 24 people into the facility in June. By the second half of July, the agency reported that 21 people — nearly a quarter of those housed in Etowah’s ICE unit — were sick.
When Golding finally emerged from his cell, the organizer part of his brain clicked back on. “I’m looking at people that’s literally looking pale in the face,” he says. “And medical is doing nothing for them.” So, Golding told everyone in the unit to request a test for Covid-19.
“So you have Africans, you have Jamaicans, you have El Salvadorans — you have different groups,” Golding explains. “What I did was say, ‘Hey, listen, you talk to your peoples, you tell them this.’ ”
Many people were apprehensive about asking for a test, as guards had already placed the few who were presumed positive into solitary confinement, a fate considered by the United Nations to be torture. In solitary, detainees say they were locked in cells without air conditioning for around 23 hours a day. The average high temperature in July in Gadsden is 91 degrees.
Nevertheless, by July 4, everyone in the unit — more than 80 people — had put in requests for a Covid-19 test, according to interviews with Golding and another immigrant detained by ICE, as well as the affidavits of nine detainees included in a petition for a writ of habeas corpus Golding filed on his own behalf in the Northern District of Alabama in September.
Two days later, according to those 11, Etowah County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mike O’Bryant called a lockdown of the unit. O’Bryant then read the names of the 10 most vocal detainees calling for mass testing, including Golding. These 10, O’Bryant said, were going to solitary. At the time of their transfer, none had tested positive for Covid-19. All 11 sources say they felt this was punishment and retaliation for requesting the coronavirus tests.
“I noticed that all of us who were randomly picked were the ones who were vocal, outspoken and shown desire to be tested,” Stanley Walden wrote in an affidavit dated August 7.
“He handpicked cells and made an example, in front of everyone, that he really meant to throw anyone who get tested into a dungeon,” Sebastian Abalo Cunna wrote in an affidavit dated July 28. “It feels like punishment for standing up for our right to health and safety.”
After locking down the unit, O’Bryant and other staff members went from cell to cell asking whether anyone still wanted a Covid-19 test, according to Golding and the affidavits of nine others. Most declined and signed waivers saying as much.
In a recorded conversation involving two Etowah employees obtained by The Intercept and In These Times, one employee described the events of July 6 as an attempt to “bully” people into not getting tested. Afterward, both employees said in the recording, immigrants inside Etowah appeared too scared to seek even basic medical care.
Four of those who went to solitary say they were unable to communicate with family for days. Some of their concerned family members called the facility. The relatives of one detainee say jail staff assured them that their family member was fine. At the time, he was in solitary confinement having developed symptoms of Covid-19. Golding’s mother says she was told there was no evidence of the virus at the facility, even as Covid-19 at Etowah was listed on the ICE website. According to the family members interviewed for this story, neither ICE nor Etowah ever reached out to tell them their loved ones were sick.
The Etowah County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to detailed questions from The Intercept and In These Times about the jail’s Covid-19 precautions, the detainees’ allegations of retaliation and whether detainees had authorized the release of their medical information to family members.
“The health, safety, and welfare of those in our care remain a top priority and concern for the agency,” a spokesperson for ICE wrote in an emailed statement. “Since the outbreak of Covid-19, ICE has taken extensive steps to safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors, including: reducing the number of detainees in custody by placing individuals on alternatives to detention programs, suspending social visitation, incorporating social distancing practices with staggered meals and recreation times, and through the use of cohorting and medical isolation.”
“A form of punishment”
ICE’s own guidance on how its detention centers should respond to the Covid-19 pandemic says “facilities must ensure that medical isolation is operationally distinct from administrative or disciplinary segregation, or any punitive form of housing.” And yet a previous investigation by The Intercept found that a number of ICE detention centers have failed to adhere to this requirement. According to immigrants detained at Etowah, solitary confinement was used not only as leverage to discourage requests for testing, but to isolate people with Covid-19.
The Intercept and In These Times spoke with five men who tested positive for Covid-19 while detained at Etowah. Each says he spent weeks in solitary.
Shemoi Edwards developed Covid-19 symptoms just days before Golding. At first, Edwards hoped to quietly sweat out whatever illness he had picked up, but he soon hobbled over to an officer and said he felt like he’d been hit by a truck. With a history of bronchitis and a recent diagnosis of sickle-cell trait, Edwards was too scared to ride out the illness on his own. Not long afterward, Edwards says, he was transferred to solitary.
The men universally describe conditions in the solitary confinement unit as squalid. In their affidavits, many expressed distress that they no longer had access to mental health professionals, the law library, sunlight or fresh air. “Civil detention have turned into torture,” Falaye Kourouma wrote.
Bakhodir Madjitov, who was deported in September, wrote that there were cockroaches and flies in the unit. Golding wrote that he was fed uncooked frozen food and didn’t have access to drinking water because the sink in his cell didn’t flow properly.
“No one wants to be treated how I am currently being treated,” Dawa Sherpa wrote in his affidavit. “I fear that I may die here at Etowah County Detention Center.”
One man says he spent 21 days in isolation. Another counted 35 days, a third 54. Edwards says he was put in isolation June 29 and released July 28 — 29 days. Golding says he was in solitary confinement from July 6 to August 28 — 53 days.
“We was getting the same treatment as [when] you get in trouble,” Edwards says. “Even though it’s probably a different word — it’s ‘isolation’ — it’s still a form of punishment that they’re putting us in.”
Edwards received the results from his coronavirus test July 8, after he had been in solitary for more than a week; he was infected. One day later, Golding received the same bad news.
In isolation, the men say, their phone access was limited. They could make calls only during a brief daily free period (no more than 75 minutes), which occurred on an irregular schedule. Sometimes, they say, it popped up in the middle of the night.
Before he got sick, Edwards would speak with his mother and brother — Nickoy Edwards, a police officer in Flint, Mich. — a few times each week. Nickoy, after not hearing from his brother the first week of July, decided to call Etowah. After finally getting someone to talk to him, Nickoy says, “that person answered and told me that they looked in the computer and they told me, ‘Shemoi is OK. He’s on the floor. And nothing is wrong with him.’”
Nickoy believed the facility — at first. Then, weeks later, his brother finally called, telling Nickoy he was in solitary confinement and had the coronavirus.
Nickoy called Etowah again. “And they told me the same thing: ‘He’s OK.’
“I felt like they weren’t telling the truth,” Nickoy says. “I was a little upset, you know, and concerned because, you know, I want him to be OK.”
Their mother, Tyson Mills, also began to worry. When she was finally able to get through to Etowah, Mills explained who she was and asked about her son. “Ma’am, he’s OK,” Mills says she was told. “He’s alright. Nothing to worry about.” She says it was suggested her son didn’t have enough money on his commissary account to call. “It wasn’t nice,” Mills says. “I was like breaking down in tears.”
Golding’s mother, Mervine Duhaney-Metzgar, says she called Etowah six times after not hearing from her son. At first, her calls were transferred around. “And it happened that I called again, and they told me that everything is OK, and there’s no evidence of any illness being there. And I know that wasn’t true,” she says. “It was very disturbing as a mother.”
Nowhere to go
Nicholas Phillips, Edwards’s attorney, is not surprised by the lack of communication experienced by the families of these detained men. “ICE is essentially kind of a closed book to us,” Phillips says. “Etowah adds another level of complexity to it because Etowah is a county jail. And so it’s not really run by ICE. It’s run by the Etowah County sheriff’s department.”
According to a 2015 agreement, Etowah is responsible for medical care inside the facility. But ICE’s 36-page guidance on how detention facilities should handle the pandemic does not mention how (or whether) facilities should notify family members of immigrants who get sick.
Jessica Vosburgh, an attorney at the Adelante Alabama Worker Center, has represented immigrants seeking release from Etowah because of medical conditions that put them at risk during the pandemic. “Because the jail is a healthcare provider, HIPAA applies to them,” Vosburgh says of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. “They have to respect patient privacy, which means not disclosing someone’s medical information without their consent.”
“When I need to get someone’s medical records from Etowah, I need their signed consent and then [the jail] can share it with me. And I think it would work similarly for a family member,” Vosburgh says. “I don’t think there’s anything in HIPAA that would require or allow people to lie or provide false information about someone’s health. That’s different than not disclosing, right? If there’s something they can’t disclose, they just have to say, ‘I can’t disclose.’ ”
“Even if someone is being imprisoned, they have the right to proper health, to proper medical attention,” Golding’s mother, Duhaney-Metzgar, says. Even before Golding got sick, she had put in a complaint to the office of her congressperson, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D‑N.Y.), asking for an investigation into how her son had been treated in ICE custody and requesting that he be transferred to a facility closer to home.
“My office has repeatedly reached out to follow up on the case for Mrs. Metzgar’s son Karim, and it has been months since their last reply,” Meeks says of ICE. “ICE’s response time is simply unacceptable, especially now during a pandemic when it’s a matter of health and safety.”
“I am so hurt deep down with what’s going on,” Duhaney-Metzgar says. “Behind it, I strongly know that it’s an act of racism.”
Phillips agrees. “[The Trump] administration, in my view, does not give a shit about detainees, immigration detainees,” he says. “So how does it fit into the kind of larger discussion about racial justice and Black Lives Matter? I think it’s an integral aspect of that. I mean, immigration detention is, in many ways, simply an extension of the kind of mass incarceration crisis that America has gone through.”
The criminal justice system and the immigration system are deeply entangled, with harsh consequences for Black immigrants in particular. One out of every five people facing deportation because of a criminal conviction is Black. As of July 2020, about half of the people detained by ICE at Etowah were Black, including Golding, Edwards and many of the other men interviewed for this story. Several are lawful permanent residents, but have lost their green cards and became “deportable” after criminal convictions.
Rather than accept deportation, many immigrants remain at Etowah for years as they fight their cases, often because they have nothing to go back to. Golding and Edwards were both born in Jamaica and came to the United States as children. Edwards, now 30, arrived at 15 on a green card; most of his family now also lives in the United States. Golding, now 36, arrived at 9 to reunite with his mother, who had fled an abusive relationship; he has never since been back to Jamaica.
Before being incarcerated by ICE, Golding served a 10-year sentence in federal prison. He and his family say they didn’t know there would be immigration consequences for his criminal conviction and that he has served his time.
“I just want my son to get to come home,” Golding’s mother says. “Every one of us has the right to be forgiven.”
Nothing to his name
Edwards was just shy of hitting one month in isolation when his third Covid-19 test came back positive. Medical staff at Etowah had informed everyone that they would need two consecutive negative tests to leave solitary and return to the general population — so when a guard later woke Edwards up and told him to pack his things, Edwards was confused. “I thought I was going back to my original unit,” he says. But a sergeant appeared and told him he was being released.
“And I’m like, OK!” Edwards says. “So I just got to packing, you know, packed all my legal work, and I gave all my commissary away to everybody.”
Phillips, Edwards’s attorney, had won a case just two weeks earlier (on July 16, 2020) on behalf of Jervis Glenroy Jack, a lawful permanent resident. The federal government had sought to deport Jack because of a conviction on unlawful gun possession in New York state. The judge Jack saw in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled the state-level gun conviction did not qualify as a deportable offense.
Edwards’s case was nearly identical to Jack’s: Edwards, a longtime permanent resident, served two and a half years in prison on a similar conviction in New York. When Edwards was out on parole, immigration authorities took him into custody.
Doing his own legal research, Edwards came across the Jack case in 2019, then reached out to Phillips, who agreed to represent him. After Phillips won the Jack case, he assumed the reversal would also help Edwards — but no one from ICE contacted Phillips, until moments before Edwards was released.
Outside the immigration jail, Edwards asked the ICE officer for his ID and a Greyhound bus ticket. “I’m basically explaining to him, like, I’m from New York. How are you going to bring me all the way down here and then just tell me that you just gonna release me with no ID, no bus ticket, plane ticket, no nothing to get back to my family?” Edwards says. “He was saying that because the way I won my case, he’s not entitled to give me anything.”
But the ICE officer did give Edwards something — directions to a Greyhound bus station a mile away. After that, Edwards was on his own. It was 87 degrees as Edwards started his walk down a four-lane highway, schlepping a heavy black garbage bag full of legal paperwork. He had about $100 and a dead cellphone on him. He stopped at the first gas station he saw to buy a mask; the one he had at release, he says, was weeks old and filthy.
When Edwards finally made it to the bus station, he asked about the next trip to New York. Two days, the person at the counter said. And Flint? A week. His best bet would be to keep walking up to Walmart, where he could buy a phone or a charger.
At Walmart, Edwards started making calls: to Phillips, to his brother and to Shut Down Etowah, an organization that helps immigrants after release from ICE custody. “I basically explained my situation, and they said, ‘We’re gonna have somebody come and pick you up. Just stay at the Walmart.’ ”
Shut Down Etowah booked Edwards on a flight to Detroit (out of Birmingham, Ala.) that same evening, and a volunteer accompanied Edwards to the airport. The airport was eerily empty, and Edwards was nervous, he says. He didn’t have any identification and worried he would be sent back to jail.
“My main mindset was that I do not want to go through this in a different jail,” Edwards says. “Even if it’s for two, three hours, or even a day. I do not want to do that.”
The representative from Shut Down Etowah did most of the talking, pulling different legal documents out of Edwards’s bag to explain who he was. Somehow, he got on the plane.
“I guess the [airport security] guy must have felt sorry for me,” Edwards says.
Arriving in Michigan felt surreal to Edwards. Everyone he knew had grown up in the years he’d been away. “They literally was babies when I left,” Edwards says.
Edwards’s mom calls every day to hear his voice, but he hasn’t been able to see her. She lives in Massachusetts; Edwards still hasn’t been able to get a driver’s license.
Edwards now works long hours at a factory and has decided to stay in Flint. He’s started working with Shut Down Etowah and speaks with college students and other groups about his experience in immigration detention and the criminal justice system. After almost a decade behind bars, he doesn’t believe anyone should be incarcerated, especially not for immigration violations.
“You saying we incarcerate somebody for rehabilitation? I don’t see it. They don’t rehabilitate you. They just put you in there till your time up and be like, ‘Go.’ That’s it,” Edwards says. “I don’t feel like we have the right to do that.”
Edwards, Golding, and the other men interviewed for this story who contracted the virus while at Etowah say they’re experiencing possible long-term symptoms of Covid-19: trouble breathing, exhaustion, gastrointestinal problems, and more. While Edwards is at home with family, Golding remains alone and in custody. “ICE detention has been far more degrading than any prison confinement I have experienced,” Golding said. “As far as rights go, you basically have no rights.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and was reported in partnership with The Intercept, which provided fact-checking by Meerabelle Jesuthasan.
Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven covers prisons, ICE detention centers, and the impacts of immigration enforcement. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, the Hechinger Report and Pacific Standard. She has reported from Puerto Rico and Israel/Palestine. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism with an M.S.J in social justice and investigative reporting. She is based in Chicago.