Immigrants Allege Medical Neglect At Detention Centers In Illinois And Wisconsin

Immigrant detainees
In this 2017 file photo, inmates walk down a hallway at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. The facility was at the center of the first big novel coronavirus outbreak at a U.S. immigration detention center in 2020. In Illinois, the largest outbreak at an immigrant detention facility occurred at the Pulaski County Detention Center. Gregory Bull / Associated Press
Immigrant detainees
In this 2017 file photo, inmates walk down a hallway at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. The facility was at the center of the first big novel coronavirus outbreak at a U.S. immigration detention center in 2020. In Illinois, the largest outbreak at an immigrant detention facility occurred at the Pulaski County Detention Center. Gregory Bull / Associated Press

Immigrants Allege Medical Neglect At Detention Centers In Illinois And Wisconsin

William Russell is begging the federal government to deport him immediately.

If he can’t be deported to Jamaica, Russell is asking to be released from an immigration detention center in southern Illinois so he can get adequate medical care.

Russell fears that he will die if he remains in detention at the Pulaski County Detention Center, which has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house immigrants facing deportation. He’s been there since last July.

“About four months ago, I go to the doctor and I was telling him, my feet is hurting and it swells,” the 61-year-old diabetic immigrant said. “He told me, there’s nothing wrong with you.”

A month later, the pain got worse and his foot continued to get bigger. The immigrant demanded an X-ray. The next morning, he was taken to a nearby hospital. Russell said the emergency room doctor told him that his right leg had to be amputated from the knee down.

“I don’t want my foot to be cut while I’m in detention,” Russell said he told the doctor, adding that his cell is kept under 45 degrees.

Russell said he barely survived a bout with COVID-19 last year at the jail. He’s still dealing with the permanent heart damage the virus left behind.

“In here, it’s bad. It’s not good,” he said. “Furthermore, I’m not going to get the medical treatment that I was supposed to get.”

Russell is one of three immigrants who’ve filed a civil rights complaint requesting an investigation into medical neglect claims at Pulaski County Detention Center, according to the complaint, which was filed on behalf of the immigrants by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

Ruben Loyo, associate director of the detention project at NIJC, said these are serious claims that need to be investigated in order to make sure immigrants have access to medical care. He said detainees should be protected from the spread of COVID-19 in rural county jails. The complaint was sent to the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which is under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“Pulaski and other facilities like it have an obligation to provide adequate care to individuals in their custody and this is also required by ICE’s own policy and standards and for that reason we’re asking for an investigation into this issue,” Loyo said.

When asked to comment, ICE issued a statement affirming its commitment to providing healthcare for detainees.

“As made evident by the $315 million the agency spent last year on the spectrum of healthcare services for those in its care, ICE is committed to the health and welfare of all individuals in its custody. Suggestions to the contrary should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve,” the statement read.

The Pulaski County Detention Center did not immediately respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment.

Loyo said the Pulaski County Detention Center, previously known as the Tri-County Detention Center, has a long history of complaints. And this facility had the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in Illinois, with 110 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen this before, but it’s especially alarming now,” he said.

A 2017 federal inspection of that facility included six allegations of sexual abuse or assault in the past year involving staff and detainees. The claims were not found credible, the report said. In addition, there were 11 “use of force” incidents and one “serious suicide attempt.” At the time of the inspection, five detainees held a hunger strike.

“I think that the civil detention has turned into this punitive measure that is no longer connected to its original legitimate purpose,” said Lisa Chun, Russell’s attorney.

This week, NIJC lawyers filed another civil rights complaint against Dodge County Detention Facility in Wisconsin, alleging medical neglect and negligence during the pandemic. The facility, which is located about an hour northwest of downtown Milwaukee, houses immigrants from Illinois facing deportation. The complaint said seven detainees reported serious medical neglect and little to no access to hand sanitizer and PPE.

The complaint also alleges that detainees were not provided access to COVID-19 tests, unless a lawyer or an ICE officer intervened, or routine medical care. “Eight detainees complained that medical staff did not respond to requests for medical appointments,” the complaint said.

For Russell at the Pulaski County Jail, those kinds of delays were harmful. Russell said he waited for months before receiving a diagnosis. Now, the infection could kill him. But he won’t allow anyone to touch him.

“I refuse for them to cut my feet,” he said. “ And I talked to my counselor yesterday. I called her and told her, ‘Get me out of here. Get me to Jamaica!’ ”

Chun, said ICE should release her client so that he can seek medical help while his deportation is being finalized.

“The whole purpose of civil immigration detention is not supposed to be punitive,” Chun said.

His deportation flight is scheduled for April 29. He’s still waiting for approval from the government in Jamaica to let him in. Thus far, government officials there have refused to take Russell since he had been infected with COVID-19.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.