Sherburne County jail, pictured here, is home to the most ICE detainees in Minnesota. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

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About a month ago, Edgardo Umana briefly left the confines of Sherburne County Jail for a medical appointment. 

Upon his return to the facility, where he’s been detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly a year, Umana received a COVID-19 test. 

The test came back negative: The swelling and pain Umana has been experiencing proved to be unrelated to the virus. But Umana asserted that his ability to obtain a test stood out as a rarity for detainees at the jail.

“The only way they test you is if you go outside,” he said in a call from the jail. “Otherwise, they check your temperature and that’s it.”

Rodolfo Martinez-Carrasco, another ICE detainee, said that within the last few months, he’s twice requested and been denied COVID-19 tests. The most recent request came just a few weeks ago. The first time, he complained of chest pains. The second time, he said, he was experiencing coughing, headaches and body pain. 

Instead of administering a test, officials quarantined Martinez-Carrasco in a separate cell for 14 days. 

“After 14 days, I said I was still sick,” said Martinez-Carrasco, speaking in Spanish with Umana interpreting for him. “They denied the test again. They said if I kept being sick, I’d be locked up all the time.” 

One month ago, Governor Tim Walz announced Minnesota had reached its “moonshot” goal of making available 20,000 COVID-19 tests each day. But this breakthrough has not reached Sherburne County Jail, according to Umana, Martinez-Carrasco and several immigration attorneys who represent detainees like them. 

The apparent lack of testing comes as frightening COVID-19 outbreaks swell in jails and prisons across the country. 

Sherburne County Jail, which is located in the north metro town of Elk River, keeps about 300 of its 732 beds for ICE detainees—the most for any jail in Minnesota. In April, the jail said its ICE detainee population was below 200, part of an effort to reduce the overall jail population by one-third to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

So far, Sherburne County Jail has reported no COVID-19 infections among its population since the start of the pandemic. A spokesperson for Sherburne County Jail did not return calls or emails from Sahan Journal for this story. 

Coughing, chest pains, but still no COVID-19 test

The Sherburne County Jail possessed at least 20 tests and administered only five of them as of last month, according to Hanne Sandison, an attorney and Immigrant Justice Corps fellow at the Advocates for Human Rights. 

Sandison questioned why Martinez-Carrasco’s chest pains and coughing weren’t serious enough symptoms to justify using one of these tests. 

“I don’t understand what sort of policy they’re following or if there is one at all,” Sandison said of the jail. 

John Bruning, a staff attorney at Advocates, argued that ICE has a reason to withhold testing. Positive COVID-19 cases at Sherburne County could reopen legal consideration of an emergency release petition from several dozen detainees. Last spring, 62 ICE detainees at Sherburne County argued unsuccessfully in court that the jail could not protect them from getting infected with the virus. This, the petition claimed, put their lives at risk.

A federal judge denied them emergency release but left the door open to revisit the case should an outbreak occur at the jail. 

“If there’s no test, no one can test positive,” Bruning said. “If there’s no confirmed cases, there’s no evidence of an outbreak.”

An ICE spokesperson maintained that the agency is following testing protocol guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He would not share the numbers of COVID-19 tests conducted at Sherburne County Jail. Instead, he pointed to an online fact sheet from ICE: As of mid-July, the agency had conducted COVID-19 tests on as many as three-quarters of its total 22,000-person detainee population across the country.

“Even if they know they’re sick, they’re not reporting it” 

Umana, 39, is originally from El Salvador and has worked as a while living in Minnesota for 20 years. He most recently lived in Fairmount, in the southwest metro, and did contract maintenance work on buildings.

Umana had been living in the U.S. on temporary protected status, based on dangers in his home country. ICE detained Umana nearly a year ago after he said he called the police during an argument with his wife. The police then called ICE, who detained Umana over previous DWIs. 

Martinez-Carrasco, 39, is originally from Honduras and was living in Wilmar before being detained a year ago. He has been living in the U.S. for five years on a work permit. Martinez-Carrasco also racked up a DWI last summer, which he said he resolved in court in the fall. But ICE took him in to detention nonetheless. 

ICE usually detains people based on their immigration status and previous infractions. Its detainees are considered civil, not criminal, detainees. Often, these immigration proceedings turn into long-term confinement as detainees appeal their deportation through a labyrinthine  legal process. That’s been the case for Umana and Martinez-Carasco. 

One particular concern of Umana? Correctional officers leave the jail after their shifts, mix with people outside who may be infected with coronavirus, and then return to work without any quarantine. 

Sherburne County officials, in the past, have said that jail staff work seven days on and seven days off. The jail conducts daily temperature checks on its staff to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Sandison said that while ICE is disclosing the number of its employees who have been infected with coronavirus—about 150 to date—they’re not including correctional officers at county jails like Sherburne. 

“The people who work in Minnesota are not ICE employees,” she said. “ICE doesn’t have to and isn’t reporting on when these people get sick.”

Another measure the jail has introduced to fight the virus is the 14-day quarantine of detainees. During that lockdown, staff confines detainees in a room similar to their usual cells. But quarantined immigration detainees can go outside the cell for just an hour each day instead of the customary four hours. 

“If you’ve got to clean yourself, take a shower, make a phone call, you’ve only got one hour,” Umana said.  

Detainees, unsurprisingly, want to avoid these lockdowns if possible, both Umana and Martinez-Carrasco said. Some intentionally don’t report their symptoms to staff.

“Even if they know they’re sick, even if they know they’ve got pain, even if they know they’re suffering, they’re not reporting it, because the jail is not doing anything,” Umana said. 

The issue could get more heated in the coming weeks. Just last week, ICE reported its first positive COVID-19 diagnosis of a detainee in Minnesota, in Freeborn County Jail.

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...