COVID-19 outbreak at for-profit jail delays court hearings, but details remain elusive
A coronavirus outbreak at the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa put many federal court hearings on hold during the past two weeks, but details about the situation remain scarce.
The 1,300-bed jail — which holds federal detainees for the U.S. Marshals Service — is owned by the GEO Group, a for-profit company based in Boca Raton, Florida.
KRGV-TV submitted questions to the GEO Group on Wednesday and followed up on Thursday. The GEO Group didn't respond.
A man jailed in La Villa, though, said approximately 300 detainees are sick.
Leonel Amaya was born in Reynosa and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, where he attended Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School.
The Pharr Police Department arrested him in October. After the arrest, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed a detainer on him.
Amaya pleaded guilty to failure to identify, a Class B misdemeanor, in November. A county court-at-law judge sentenced him to time served. And ICE immediately detained him on an immigration charge.
Eight months later, Amaya is still locked up in La Villa.
"Before it was alright," Amaya said in a phone interview from the East Hidalgo Detention Center. "But since the guards came infected with the COVID-19, a lot of people started getting sick."
Amaya said detainees aren't being taken to the infirmary when they become sick and guards don't want to interact with any inmate who may be infected.
"They don't want to do their jobs because they're short-staffed," Amaya said.
Amaya said he believes guards brought COVID-19 to the East Hidalgo Detention Center and infected detainees.
It's also possible the virus arrived with new detainees or attorneys who visited their clients.
Amaya said he believed COVID-19 started spreading through the detention center in April or May. In June, the guards provided inmates with masks.
With detainees living in cramped quarters, Amaya said they can't practice social distancing. They also struggle to keep cells clean. Soap costs $1.59 per bar and the commissary doesn't sell bleach or hand sanitizer.
"Me, personally, I got asthma. What are they going to do if we get sick?" Amaya said. "What kind of medical treatment are they going to give us — or what?"
Amaya said he heard that at least two detainees had died. Another detainee was apparently so frustrated with the lack of medical care that he burned his mattress.
"I think he became sick and they took him to the SHU and he burned the SHU — he burned the mattress," Amaya said, using an acronym for solitary confinement. "The mattress, he burned it. He burned it. So they took him to the hospital because he nearly passed away with the smoke."
KRGV-TV couldn't independently verify Amaya's story. The GEO Group didn't respond to written questions on Wednesday or Thursday.
Whatever the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, it put many court hearings on hold during the past two weeks.
One sentencing, however, went forward Wednesday without the defendant.
During a hearing on Wednesday morning, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane took the unusual step of sentencing a man in absentia.
The man, who had pleaded guilty to illegal re-entry, was represented by his attorney. The man was sentenced to time served.
Crane said he was informed that at least one prisoner had died after being transported to a hospital.
The outbreak at La Villa started impacting the federal court system last week, Crane said, and continued this week.
"What happened at La Villa happened and we haven't been able to have any hearings since then," Crane said.
GEO Group released a statement on Friday afternoon:
"From the onset of this unprecedented pandemic, the health and safety of those entrusted to our care and our employees, who are on the front lines making daily sacrifices, has been our top priority. While we have taken comprehensive steps at our facilities nationwide to address and mitigate the risks of COVID-19 (geogroup.com/COVID19), COVID-19 has still unfortunately impacted a number our facilities, including the East Hidalgo Detention Center.
"Unfortunately, we were recently notified that a correctional officer at the East Hidalgo Detention Facility has passed away and we express our condolences to their family, friends, and colleagues at the facility. We also received notification that an inmate who tested positive passed away at the local hospital and we express our sympathy to their family and community.
"As of July 15th, forty-two other employees at the East Hidalgo Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19. Forty-one of the employees who tested positive are currently at home on self-quarantine or receiving medical treatment at the local hospital, while one employee has fully recovered and returned to work after meeting the return-to-work guidelines for essential workers issued by the CDC.
"All inmates who have tested positive have been placed on medical isolation, consistent with the latest guidance from the Centers or Disease Control and Prevention, to allow for medical staff to monitor their health and wellbeing. We would refer you to the U.S. Marshals Service for information related to COVID-19 inmate cases.
"We will continue to coordinate closely with the U.S. Marshals Service and local health agencies to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees."
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