Kandiyohi County Sheriff says jail follows CDC guidance, advocates say pandemic a matter of life and death
While ICE continues to arrest and transfer detainees for deportation, advocates and inmates are concerned about conditions in detention, including the Kandiyohi County Jail. Sheriff Eric Holien disputes these concerns, citing his office's proactive approach to the pandemic.
WILLMAR — Correctional and detention facilities are at an increased risk of a COVID-19 outbreak the same as other congregate living facilities.
Close quarters, new people coming in and the difficulty in isolating or social distancing make it difficult to prevent an illness that is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person contact.
In addition to the usual flow of people in and out that all county jails face, Kandiyohi County has the added traffic created by serving as a detention facility for the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Five Minnesota counties — Sherburne, Nobles, Freeborn, Carver and Kandiyohi — have agreements with the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold detainees, with Sherburne County being the largest.
Kandiyohi County’s agreement with ICE stems from a 2001 agreement, with predecessor the Immigration and Naturalization Service, that agrees to pay the county about $75 a day for each detainee held by the county.
The county was paid over $1.5 million in 2019 by the federal government for ICE-related detentions, including some transportation costs, according to Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien, who said the length of time that detainees are held is in direct correlation with the deportation process.
A recent Sahan Journal news story detailing several detainees’ concerns regarding the response to the pandemic has painted the jail inaccurately, according to Holien.
Complaints included lack of social distancing and jail staff not taking the pandemic seriously.
According to its website, Sahan Journal is the only independent nonprofit digital newsroom focused on reporting for and about immigrants and refugees in Minnesota.
“Social distancing is a practice that must occur on an individual basis,” Holien wrote via email, adding that inmates do have the option to return to their cell.
Holien wrote that they took proactive steps before Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, which included cleaning common areas and advising inmates of the ongoing pandemic and social distancing guidelines.
The jail is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines, including issuing soap to every inmate twice a week and housing new inmates in separate quarantine until cleared by medical staff, according to Holien.
Holien wrote that the jail is designed to contain an airborne threat by isolating into two distinct zones while using its air exchange to bring in outside air that passes through a microbial filter and expelling the same amount of air from inside the jail.
According to Holien, jail staff members have not downplayed the pandemic and that his staff’s ability to “remain calm in the midst of chaos” is a matter of perception.
“This pandemic, the information, as well as our response is fluid and ever-changing. We will continue to proactively modify protocols and procedures to meet any challenge to ensure the health and safety of those in our care,” Holien wrote. “All protocols and procedures are implemented to protect them and our staff.”
Despite these actions, detention centers are at an increased risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, due to close quarters and the introduction of new people, according to Mary Georgevich, an equal justice work fellow at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
Georgevich said she’s working with people currently detained at the Kandiyohi County Jail and that there are multiple organizations, including the ACLU of Minnesota, trying to get inmates out of detention centers.
“We know that there are people who have underlying conditions that medical experts and public health experts have consistently said makes them more vulnerable to serious complications or death from COVID-19,” Georgevich said. “We are also concerned because we know that ICE is continuing to transfer people in and out ... without a 14-day quarantine period.”
According to Holien, ICE detainees are generally held separately from the other jail population but that all inmates will most likely have a roommate unless quarantined for medical reasons.
County jails typically house people who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime or people who are serving less than a year after a conviction.
However, ICE detainees fall under civil detention and the burden of proof is on them for why they shouldn’t be held, according to Georgevich.
“We will continue to take the best care of those in or put in our care during these times,” Holien wrote, adding that it’s not his decision to release inmates or detainees.
According to ICE's website, the agency has identified 160 higher-risk detainees for release but did not respond to a request asking if any of those releases were in Minnesota.
ICE plans to rely on local hospitals for detainees who suffer from moderate to severe symptoms of the virus, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, according to the agency's website .
Confined spaces, arrests, detainee movement and ICE’s planned reliance on local health care facilities is compounded by the fact that many countries have started to close their borders in response to the pandemic, according to Georgevich.
The decision by ICE to continue transferring and detaining people for deportation means jails will continue to house inmates and expose not only those waiting for deportation but U.S. citizens as well, according to Georgevich, who said that their release is necessary to protect their lives.
An ICE official directed questions regarding deportations to a general media contact that did not respond before publication.
“We don't believe that they should have the death penalty,” said Georgevich. “I don't think that holding them in this situation is appropriate.”