The man who was confirmed last week to be the first person in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody to test positive for the coronavirus wasn’t even a target when he was detained, he told BuzzFeed News. Thinking the ICE agents who were talking to his roommate were police officers, “Gabriel” tried to be helpful by translating when agents swept him up too. “The jackets said police,” he said.
“Feverish and coughing, Gabriel lay on the top bunk in a cramped cell he shared with another immigrant detainee at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey,” Hamed Aleaziz of BuzzFeed News reported. “His body ached and, as the hours passed last Sunday, he got increasingly nauseated and dizzy.” He said he felt so sick, “I thought I was going to die and leave my daughter alone.”
The 31-year-old man, who agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News as long as the outlet protected his privacy, had been detained at Bergen County Jail, one of the New Jersey facilities recently criticized by advocates for poor conditions that detainees fear will further endanger their lives amid this public health crisis. “This coronavirus is getting out of control,” a group of detainees hunger striking at the Essex County Correctional Facility said, “and if we were to be infected I am sure everyone would rather die on the outside with our families than in here.”
Gabriel said he wasn’t sure how he got sick, but he began to feel it at Bergen, where he’d been assigned to work in the cafeteria serving food—and presumably in close contact with other detainees. “After Gabriel gathered the strength to leave his cell on Sunday to fill a cup with hot water for tea, he fainted on the way back and fell down a flight of stairs,” BuzzFeed News reported. “His fellow immigrant detainees picked him up and urged him to get medical help: ‘You got it. You got coronavirus!’”
He was eventually taken to a hospital, where a positive result was confirmed. He said he wanted to stay there, but was instead shuffled back to jail, then back to the hospital, then back to the jail once again, where he said he recalled medical staff wearing gloves but not face masks. Following his release, he ended up in the hospital for a third time after vomiting. Now living in a spare room at his sister’s, he worries about everyone else still at Bergen. “That’s where I got it,” he said. “Being locked up in there is very sad. It’s dusty, it’s dirty, some of the toilets work, but others don’t. It’s really bad. I pray to God they will be okay.”
Many others still left behind are in fear and living in the kind of poor conditions Gabriel described. People detained at another New Jersey facility, Hudson County Correctional Facility, said “Each cell does not have enough materials to disinfect. There is bacteria everywhere. Ever since one person on our old block had symptoms, the medical staff refuses to see us because they are afraid of infecting themselves with the virus. Even those of us with diabetes, they are not calling us to take our insulin. We make requests but they do not respond.”
A federal judge blasted ICE in a recent ruling ordering the release of ten people from New Jersey facilities, saying the agency ”exhibited, and continue to exhibit, deliberate indifference to Petitioners’ medical need. The spread of COVID-19 is measured in a matter of a single day—not weeks, months, or years—and Respondents appear to ignore this condition of confinement that will likely cause imminent, life-threatening illness.”
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