‘It’s hell’: COVID-19 concerns grow at federal immigrant prison in Baldwin

Family members, activists send plea to Department of Justice

By: - May 10, 2020 6:40 am

North Lake Correctional Facility | Mary Minnick photo

Sixteen staff members at Michigan’s only private, for-profit immigrant prison in the rural village of Baldwin have been confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday.

But for loved ones of the inmates housed there, that’s where their access to clear COVID-19 information at the North Lake Correctional Facility ends.

The owner of the facility — Florida-based GEO Group — has continued to decline requests for information about how many inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. And the Federal Bureau of Prisons also has been slow to respond to requests for information. It wasn’t until this week that the bureau added private prison figures to a separate PDF on its website showing that 18 North Lake prisoners had coronavirus.

Family members of inmates, however, were not informed of the change. They say they still cannot get information about their incarcerated relatives’ welfare, aside from direct phone calls with them.

Photo of Victoria Limon
Victoria Limon

“They’re being treated worse than animals,” said Victoria Limon, the sister of an inmate.

She and other relatives of prisoners describe unsafe conditions, including inadequate nutrition and sick people going without treatment. The prison has also seen at least one coordinated hunger strike since the COVID-19 outbreak began in Michigan. Activists said prisoners launched another strike Friday, demanding immediate COVID-19 tests for all inmates and adequate medical attention.

With sparse public information about happenings inside the prison, activists and family members sent an urgent plea to the U.S. Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons last week demanding a response to the situation.

The letter is addressed to the U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal and Bureau North Central Regional Director Jeffrey Krueger. It is signed by 41 organizations and more than 55 relatives of North Lake prisoners.

“The COVID-19 crisis has substantiated our worst fears about GEO’s reopening of this facility,” the letter reads. “The heightened health and safety risks facing incarcerated populations have signaled both an immediate need for mass release on a national scale, and, in particular, the utter untenability of the GEO Group’s presence in Baldwin.”

Breaking: 9 inmates at Baldwin immigrant prison test positive for COVID-19

JR Martin, spokesperson for No Detention Centers in Michigan (NDCM), the group that spearheaded the effort, tells the Advance that there has so far been no response to the letter.

“We at NDCM find it very disheartening to see the lack of consideration for human lives at the GEO facilities, where a for-profit corporation chooses each day to put money over human lives. We really need to make the general public aware of what is going on at these facilities,” said Oscar Castaneda, another organizer with the group.

Activists and family members also flagged major transparency concerns about COVID-19-related communications from GEO Group and the Bureau of Prisons. Unlike Michigan’s 29 state prisons run by the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC), which provide detailed COVID-19 testing data to the state each day that the DOC then posts online, GEO Group has not made that information publicly available.

Previously, only nine inmates were confirmed to have COVID-19 at North Lake, which the Advance initially reported on April 20. That confirmation in April came from a spokesperson at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) after a GEO spokesperson declined to provide COVID-19 information on prisoners.

DHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton said in an April 27 email that further requests would need to go to North Lake.

“Moving forward from now, we are going to refer you to the facility to get this information. With all the other COVID-19 response activities going on, our staff that has to track this down isn’t going to have the time to do so,” Wheaton wrote.

Private prison wins federal contract to house immigrants in Michigan

Meanwhile, GEO continues to refer inquiries about prisoner cases at North Lake to the Bureau of Prisons, through which the prison is contracted.

But requests to gather that information from the bureau have been unanswered until this week. BOP spokesperson Justin Long said in an email Thursday that the bureau is “working to post to our website soon the number of inmates positive with COVID-19 at our privately contracted prisons.” 

That number, 18 inmates, appears to have been quietly added to the website Friday. 

According to daily COVID-19 data provided by DHHS, Michigan’s two federal correctional institutions have a total of 110 prisoner cases and three prisoner deaths from the virus as of Saturday.

A breakdown of those numbers is not provided by the state, but the other federal prison in Milan has 14 inmates and 11 staff that are confirmed positive for COVID-19 and three inmate deaths as of Sunday. The Bureau of Prisons declined to respond to an inquiry this week to clarify whether the remaining more than 90 infected inmates are housed at North Lake.

New: Hunger strike at Baldwin immigrant prison enters 5th day

Victoria Limon, 37, said her 44-year-old brother, Ricardo Limon, was transferred to North Lake from a California prison about three weeks ago on short notice. He has three years left on a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit drug trafficking, she said.

“He says it’s hell,” said Victoria Limon, who lives in California.

Photo of Ricardo Limon
Ricardo Limon

Limon and her brother are from Mexico, but have lived in the United States for the majority of their lives. Limon said she would rather see Ricardo deported than have to stay at North Lake.

“Deport him; let him figure it out on his own,” Limon said, adding that it would be preferable to him “being locked into a prison into a cell with his life in danger.”

She described the situation at North Lake as a “death sentence” for her brother, especially since he contracted Valley Fever at the now-closed Taft Correctional Institution in California. 

“When he gets sick, his immune system is very, very weak,” Limon said. When Ricardo’s sickness recently flared up at North Lake, he told Limon that the staff only gave him Tylenol.

Limon said this makes her “terrified” of her brother catching COVID-19, especially since Ricardo has told her that he mostly eats frozen meals and has on several occasions sent back food to the guards because it was expired.

North Lake Correctional Facility | Mary Minnick photo

In an email Friday, a GEO Group spokesperson wrote: “We strongly reject these allegations. … We take our responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all those in our care and our employees with the utmost seriousness, and we reject efforts by outside groups to advance politically motivated agendas in the face of the unprecedented health crisis facing our country.”

The spokesperson added that dietician-approved “high-quality food services” are provided to prisoners.

“My hope is if they’re not capable of keeping my brother safe, with his three years that are left [in his sentence], put him in house arrest. Send him here to me,” Limon said. “Put him in confinement here or deport him.” 

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.