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Rio Grande Detention Center Detainees, Relatives Troubled By COVID-19 Outbreak

The Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo is operated by the private company GEO Group.
Maria Mendez | Texas Public Radio
The Rio Grande Detention Center in Laredo is operated by the private company GEO Group.

The City of Laredo put two privately operated detention centers under quarantine in July. Detention facilities have become coronavirus hotspots across the country. 

Detainees at the Rio Grande Detention Center and their relatives fear not enough is being done to protect their health.

Armando Vargas has been there for almost a year under custody of the U.S. Marshals for a probation violation. He remembers the moment COVID-19 started infecting other detainees earlier this year.

“People started getting sick,” he said. “They couldn’t move, they were just lying down. So they got medical attention and they took them out and put them in quarantine. After a few weeks, they started taking out more people and more people and more people.”

Then, about a month ago, he said employees at the detention center moved him into a dorm where detainees had been sick. That’s why he fears he’s been exposed to COVID-19. 

“Me personally, I saw a guy he was already laying down there for four days. He couldn't move and he couldn't go to the restroom or anything,” he said.

In mid-July, Laredo officials placed the detention center, which is used by the U.S. Marshals and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under quarantine. This came after one discharged detainee died from the virus and multiple workers and detainees tested positive for COVID-19. Then, the Webb County Detention Center was placed under quarantine a week later.

Under the quarantine orders, detainees cannot be discharged, transferred or admitted unless approved by Laredo's health department. The centers are required to provide testing to all employees and detainees.

But Vargas said that’s not the case.

“The nurse started telling us they're like, we could have it already but we cannot show anything,” he said. “So we told the nurse like ‘what do you mean we could have it already’ (if) we can’t show any symptoms? Can we get tested?’ They're like ‘no, you can't get no test.’”

TPR heard from a dozen detainees at the Rio Grande facility and their relatives. Many said detainees have been denied tests and that they have to reuse face masks.

Leopoldo Serna, who was also at the center for a probation violation, said he asked staff for a test because he had soreness and headaches.

“She’s like ‘the only thing we’re focusing (on) right now is difficulty breathing,’’’ he said.

Another detainee who did not want to be named out of fear or retaliation said he had to beg staff to take away a  cellmate  who was really sick.

“He was not eating in like hours… holding his urine because he didn’t have the energy to get up,” he said. 

Officials have not yet identified the detainee who was discharged and later died at a local hospital. But the detainee who spoke to TPR said he hasn’t seen his cellmate return.

He also said they often have to reuse their face masks and only get small alcohol disinfecting pads.

“What are going to do with this for the entire day?” he said. “It’s a sad situation.”

GEO Group, which operates the federal detention center, called the allegations “baseless.” In a statement, the company said it provides face masks to detainees at least three times per week. It also said all it’s detention centers are equipped with “airborne infection isolation rooms” and offer water and soap for handwashing.

The company did not respond to questions about testing. Laredo Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño said last week that the city was working with the detention centers to order more than a 1,000 testing kits and to identify all sick employees and detainees at the center.

“I am very familiar with the challenges of these types of detention centers and frankly a lot of them were not built to meet these real challenges associated with COVID-19,” he said during a media briefing. “That is why we're seeing these clusters and outbreaks. A testing program is absolutely necessary to contain the spread.”

So far, 32 detainees and 20 employees at the Rio Grande facility have tested positive, as have 29 detainees and 17 employees at the Webb County facility, Laredo officials said earlier this week.

Leopoldo Serna is relieved to have been released by a judge with approval from Laredo’s health department this week. But he’s worried about those who remain at the Rio Grande Detention Center.

“There’s other people that should deserve the same fate that I have right now,” he said. “That I’m out here with my family and not being exposed to something like this that is taking lives, because it’s actually taking lives.” 

Armando Vargas is growing frustrated. 

“I don’t know what time I’m getting out because I don’t have a court date. I don’t have anything,” he said. “Like I’m not here for killing anybody or robbing a bank. Nothing major. I’m just here for a simple violation that I didn’t report to my probation officer. So, why am I in here risking my life whenever there’s a bunch of people sick in here?” 

Families say the detainees should be released on bond, moved to a halfway house or kept under house arrest.

In the meantime, Laredo officials have extended the quarantines at the detention centers.

They were set to expire this week, but Treviño said they can’t be lifted until all sick employees and detainees are separated.

Maria Mendez can be reached at Maria@tpr.org and on Twitter at @anxious_maria. She's a corps member of Report For America.

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