Interim Dean Cindy Buys, discusses the impact of COVID19 on federal detainees at the Pulaski County Detention Center in Ullin, IL

April 10, 2020 , by Molly Parker


ULLIN — Three detainees at the Pulaski County Detention Center and one correctional officer have been diagnosed with COVID-19, officials confirmed Thursday. 

It is the first publicly reported correctional facility in Southern Illinois with a known outbreak.

The detention center houses court-involved individuals in Alexander and Pulaski counties who have criminal cases pending or have been sentenced to serve time.

Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency contracts with Pulaski County to use part of the 240-bed facility to house people who are accused of being in the U.S. illegally. 

Currently, there are about 145 people in custody at the facility, about 130 of whom are ICE detainees, said facility administrator Damon Acuff. He said that everyone in the custody of the facility is treated the same, and declined to say whether those in the facility's custody who tested positive for COVID-19 were jail inmates or ICE detainees. 

Acuff said that the three individuals with COVID-19 had not been housed with the general population. 

"Those individuals hadn't been here very long and they were actually housed by themselves," he said Thursday afternoon. "About 48 hours after they arrived here, they started complaining of not feeling well. We checked their temperatures. They had low-grade temperatures. We put them on medical isolation."

Because of that, Acuff said that he does not believe any other detainees in the general population have been exposed. 

Acuff said he was notified Thursday morning that the three detainees, as well as one correctional officer, had tested positive. Upon receiving this information, four other correctional officers were tested due to potential exposure. They are not symptomatic and are continuing to work pending those results, he said. Acuff said that the facility tests correctional officers' temperatures when they report to work, and checks detainees' temperatures twice daily. He said the facility will continue to monitor the situation closely. 

The detained individuals with COVID-19 include one male in his 20s and two males in their 30s, according to the Southern Seven Health Department. 

Immigrant rights organizations have been sounding the alarm for weeks about COVID-19 risks to people being held in ICE's network of jails in facilities across the country. According to the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, ICE apprehended and detained nearly 10,000 people in March, as COVID-19 infections began to spread throughout the U.S.   

More than 35,000 people were in ICE's custody at the end of March, all facing civil violations, and the detention facilities where they are being held are  "tinderboxes for the virus to spread," the advocacy organization wrote on its website. It called on ICE to limit enforcement and release people in its custody on humanitarian parole or on their own recognizance. 

ICE's media department had not responded to The Southern's emailed questions as of deadline Thursday evening. 

BuzzFeed News and other national media outlets reported earlier this week that an ICE official told congressional staffers that the agency is reviewing cases of individuals in detention "who may be vulnerable to the virus" and is making "case-by-case determinations for release" in accordance with guidance from medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

buys-cindy.pngCindy Buys, a Southern Illinois University law professor who has made numerous trips to the Pulaski County facility to deliver educational seminars with her law school students, said an outbreak there is concerning. ICE detainees are housed in large pods in which 30 or more people share an open space, she said. "If one person were to be infected in the pod, it would really be impossible to keep it away from the rest," she said. "They’re in bunk beds, they’re sharing restroom facilities, everything."

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