Chase County ICE facility outbreak highlights concerns over detainee overcrowding

By: - September 18, 2020 11:40 am

The Chase County Detention facility currently houses Low and Medium custody ICE detainees from across Kansas. A new data tool shows nearly 31% of those being held or removed have no criminal charge or a traffic violation. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas immigrant detention facility was on high alert last month after an outbreak of COVID-19 infected nearly 60 detainees.

The Chase County Detention Center — which has contracted with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigrant detainees since 2008 — first identified an outbreak in the facility in early August when it reported 29 cases among staff and detainees, said jail administrator Larry Sigler.

As of Sept. 16, ICE had reported 59 total cases, including 16 cases currently under isolation, and no deaths among ICE detainees at the Chase County jail. Sigler said all cases have since recovered, but they are not in the clear.

“I am worried something like this is going to happen again, and it probably will,” Sigler said. “The best we can do is handle that when it occurs.”

The Chase County facility houses low- and medium-custody ICE detainees, who advocates say were already at risk in overcrowded conditions. The facility roster currently lists 63 detainees, most of whom are immigrants.

Under current detainment conditions, social distancing is not possible, said Blanca Soto, of Kansas Appleseed, an advocacy group working to support immigrant safety, financial access, and due process for immigrants in Kansas.

Soto said additional support and oversight from the state to make sure immigrant communities are treated fairly and local authorities respect 48-hour hold laws would go a long way. 

Most ICE detainees are not being held for serious crimes but rather small tickets or fines, Soto said. About 59% of ICE detainees at the Chase County facility at the end of July 2019 had no prior convictions according to a data analysis done by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

“These immigrants being detained are not criminals,” Soto said. “Even outside of the outbreak it’s very concerning when you contain so many people in overcrowded conditions. This outbreak emphasizes the concerns we have for our immigrants and the treatment they receive from state and local authorities.”

Sigler said appropriate action was taken in response to the outbreak. He consulted with county health officials and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to mitigate the spread at Chase County Jail.

Changes implemented as a result of the consultation included isolating detainees with positive cases together, stricter mask protocols for staff and detainees and targeted symptom checking.

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer declined to comment on the specific actions taken to ensure the health of immigrant detainees at the Chase County facility but did provide general precautions being taken.

“To prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect its detainees, implemented safeguards based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and the National Detention Standards,” Neudauer said. “ICE’s proactive measures include limiting the intake of new detainees, implementing alternative detention programs, social distancing, cohorting, and monitoring and screening detainees for COVID-19. In addition, ICE provides the appropriate personal protective equipment to all individuals in custody.”

Neudauer also did not comment regarding the current ICE detainee populating at the facility.

When last inspected in July 2019 by the independently contracted Nakamoto Group, the facility received a rating of acceptable, with no deficient standards. The inspection report said the facility was properly ventilated and described sanitation as “average.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.