In the final weeks of 2020, COVID-19 blazed through Kandiyohi County Jail. Credit: Kandiyohi County

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Two months after the beginning of a COVID-19 outbreak that infected most of Kandiyohi County Jail’s detainees, Omar Mohamed says he still can’t taste or smell.

His other symptoms are better than they were around New Year’s Day, when Omar tested positive for the virus. He’s no longer bedridden, though he’s visibly tired and yawning. Detainees casually walk around in the main room behind him as he speaks to a reporter on a videophone. At one point, he holds up his facemask to the camera.

“They gave me this one only,” said Omar, who is 41. “It’s dirty, it’s not clean.” 

For three weeks in January, Omar and scores of other detainees who also fell sick and tested positive were in medical isolation. During the worst of it, Omar said he frequently coughed, had trouble breathing, and felt dizzy. 

“I was in bed for five days,” Omar said. “I couldn’t get up.” 

By then, the virus had already blazed through the jail population for more than a month, causing staff to isolate U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who tested positive while temporarily transferring new intakes to Meeker County Jail.

Now, two months after the start of the outbreak, Kandiyohi County Jail appears to have dodged a bullet. At least 41 detainees contracted the virus since late November, according to ICE’s numbers—by far the most in the five county jails in the state that house detainees. The number of detainees testing positive also probably constitutes the majority of people held there by ICE (Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Holien would not disclose the total number of detainees at the jail; immigration attorneys say it’s likely around 60. The jail holds up to 190 beds and, as of Thursday, listed 50 general inmates in custody on its website). 

Roughly 20 jail employees also were infected, according to Holien. The outbreak is believed to have originated with one of the staff members. 

Today, conditions at Kandiyohi County Jail have returned largely to what they were before the outbreak. As of last week, no positive infections remained in the jail. None of the people who were infected, Holien said, required inpatient or hospital treatment, and all had recovered. 

“In some aspects, we did great,” Holien said. 

But several immigrant attorneys, medical doctors, and religious groups warn that future outbreaks at county jails are likely. And they warn that jails that house ICE detainees aren’t prepared for the next outbreak.

Hannah Lichtsinn, an internal medicine doctor and pediatrician at Hennepin Healthcare, said her review of medical records of some detainees at Kandiyohi County show they received substandard care. Detainees with COVID-19, for example, weren’t regularly checked for their pulse and blood oxygen levels. 

“It truly makes my blood boil as a physician,” said Lichtsinn, who also co-founded the Minnesota Immigrant Health Alliance. 

She is part of a coalition that is pushing Governor Tim Walz’s administration for independent oversight of medical care at jails across the state. 

Lia Pearson knew something was wrong the day that staffers at Kandiyohi County Jail came into the unit where she was detained wearing hazmat suits. 

“They said it was a test run,” said Pearson, who was detained from April until December. “It just didn’t make any sense, and I’m not that gullible.” 

It was the week of Thanksgiving, and staff had already put her and several others into medical isolation that Monday and gave them COVID-19 tests. By Wednesday, her test came back positive, along with those of the vast majority of female detainees who were moved to isolation with her. 

ICE detainees like Omar and Pearson are considered civil detainees. They are held because of  their immigration status and previous criminal offenses that often have already been settled. ICE will use a person’s undocumented status and their previous infractions to deem them flight risks in need of detention while they resolve their immigration cases. Omar, for example, had previous convictions in 2006 of possessing khat, the illegal stimulant, and in 2016 of participating in an insurance fraud scheme, for which he got two years of probation. He has been in ICE detention since 2017 and fighting deportation to Somalia. 

Pearson was convicted in 2017 of manslaughter and child endangerment after placing her toddler in care of her then-boyfriend, who killed the child. Last April, ICE used this conviction—for which Pearson had finished her sentence—and Pearson’s loss of permanent residence to detain her. Pearson has been fighting a deportation order to Laos, where she was born. 

Medical isolation in the jail isn’t the same thing as lockdown or solitary confinement. Detainees still share cells and an area with other detainees. They still are offered periodic access to the common area, where they can use kiosks, watch TV, and eat. 

Omar Mohamed, who has been detained by ICE for almost four years, speaks from Kandiyohi County Jail in January 2021. Credit: Joey Peters | Sahan Journal

COVID-19-positive detainees and those who tested negative would access the common area at different times, Holien said, and staff would sanitize the area in between. But medical isolation brought anxiety to some. Pearson recalls one detainee pounding on the door after being placed in the area. 

As December unfolded, the virus made its way to three pods, or housing units, in the jail, according to Pearson. For her week of medical isolation, Pearson, 42, said she spent most of the time sleeping. Her sinuses felt swollen to her eyeballs, and she lost her sense of taste for a few days. After 14 days from testing positive, the jail released Pearson from quarantine, deeming she wasn’t contagious anymore. Her dizziness and fatigue stayed with her for a few more days after that. 

Every day, the jail’s medical staff would ask the detainees over a loudspeaker if they needed medical attention. Holien said that detainees in medical isolation receive “constant health assessments” and “constant questioning” from staff about their wellbeing. 

Holien also provided Sahan Journal with a summary of detainee conditions at the jail conducted in December by an inspector with the state Department of Corrections. The inspector, who reviewed detainee medical records, found no medical complaints in the files reviewed, found nurses on staff all days off the week, and concluded that detainees’ medical requests were being answered in a timely manner. 

But Lichtsinn argued that the lack of regular oxygen level and pulse tests leaves something to be desired. 

“The people that were diagnosed with COVID had daily temperature checks, but they did not have any other assessment of their wellbeing,” she said. “No one was listening to their lungs, or at least no one was documenting that.”

Lichtsinn also cited the track record of MEnD Correctional Care. MEnD is the private company that several jails across the state, including Kandiyohi County, contract with to provide health care for detainees and inmates. 

In December, KARE 11 reported that the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice is investigating MEnD President and Chief Medical Officer Todd Leonard for the treatment of a Beltrami County Jail inmate who died in 2018. MEnD, which is the largest medical provider of jails in the state, is also currently facing multiple wrongful death civil lawsuits from families of inmates for whom the company was responsible for providing care, according to KARE 11. 

Leonard is the only medical doctor at the company and is responsible for the care of 2,700 inmates. MEnD did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story. 

All of this prompted Minnesota Immigrant Health Alliance in December to write an open letter calling for independent oversight of healthcare in the state’s jails. Faith advocacy groups like ISAIAH-MN, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota, promptly signed on. 

Currently, the only oversight that exists consists of filing a complaint about a doctor to the state medical board, which could decide to revoke the doctor’s medical license. Lichtsinn said a state body like the Department of Corrections, which is in charge of the state prison system, should have authority to oversee and sanction health care providers in county jails if needed. Others agree.

“The DOC has some licensure authority over the jails, but not really revocation authority,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director for the Advocates for Human Rights, which provides legal services to immigrants. “It’s a relationship that lacks teeth in many respects.” 

The result, Garnett McKenzie said, is detainees and inmates who can’t advocate for themselves and a lack of a central authority to make sure they are safe. 

Currently, Lichtsinn is having discussions on behalf of the coalition with officials in the Walz administration about what oversight would look like. She and others warn that Sherburne County Jail, home to the most ICE detainees in the state, could be next for an outbreak. 

In the meantime, detainees and former detainees continue going through their legal cases to try to prevent deportation. Pearson was released from detention in early December. She said she can stay in the country under a work permit. 

Omar twice won his case to stop his deportation to Somalia before immigration judges, but the federal government appealed each time. His future remains in flux. 

If he’s still detained this May, Omar will have made it to his fourth anniversary behind bars.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...