As the director of the Howard County Detention Center, I am outraged by the recent op-ed by Sergio España entitled “Howard County needs to end its contract with ICE” (July 16). This “opinion piece” is based on multiple falsehoods regarding the health standards and quality of care at the Howard County Detention Center.
For the last 12 years, I have taken managing the Howard County Detention Center very seriously and have the highest regard for the safety of our community and welfare of all inmates. My staff members have the same commitment and are held to incredibly high standards, so it is disheartening and frustrating to consistently have the reputation of our center vilified with unfounded claims.
In his op-ed, Mr. España claimed, “Medical care at the Howard County Detention Center is wholly inadequate” and referenced an “ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Howard County’s detention center,” a statement that lacks legitimacy. There is an ongoing COVID-19 crisis in this nation, but our detention center has taken all the recommended precautions, including making referrals to the courts to release higher-risk inmates to prevent a potential outbreak in our facility.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our detention center immediately implemented stringent protocols to keep inmates and staff safe. Non-violent inmates over the age of 60, or those with chronic medical conditions, were prioritized for release in which the final determination falls under the purview of the courts. Our center is at roughly 60% capacity, and our inmates are properly distanced from one another to prevent any potential spread of the virus. Inmates are all provided masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, in addition to undergoing daily temperature checks. These measures are in conjunction with other lengthy protocols we have been transparent about over the past few months.
Mr. España states, “Nationally, ICE has failed those people in its custody: There are more than 900 people in immigration detention who are positive for COVID-19. In the Howard County Detention Center, three staff members, including a nurse, have contracted COVID-19.” Most importantly, the Howard County Detention Center is not managed by ICE.
The positive staff cases he references were concerning, but extensive contact tracing suggests the virus was not contracted at the facility and did not spread to any inmates. Our entire inmate population was tested three times, once every two weeks, following those positive cases. Only one inmate tested positive; however, he was negative on two subsequent tests and never had symptoms of the virus.
To date, we have been and will remain in full compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for prisons and jails. We also consult, almost daily, with the Howard County Health Department regarding our efforts to mitigate the virus. Nothing about our current situation or swiftly initiated preventative measures constitute the crisis fabricated in the op-ed.
Mr. España’s argument leans heavily on the claims made by a previous inmate, “Pedro.” Pedro claimed he was not given proper medical attention and just sent to the “hole.” This is a baseless accusation that perhaps exists in dramatized movies or divested facilities but is not the true reality of ours. Our detention center has disciplinary seclusion for inmates who break center rules, including attacking other inmates. Disciplinary seclusion is a solitary cell with no television or telephone privileges.
Pedro’s inmate file, which I would be happy to disclose to the public with his approval, notes all the proper medical attention he received and instances of disciplinary isolation/seclusion after committing a violent incident in our facility.
The conditions here must meet extensive state and federal standards for which we are audited annually. I am proud to say this facility has never been cited for inadequate conditions. Our medical providers must also meet the community standard of care and do an incredible job providing medical and mental health care to all our inmates, within 24 hours of a request. As director, I also have oversight and receive appeals if inmates believe they are not properly treated — something that is incredibly rare.
Mr. España’s goal is to release all ICE inmates but fails to mention that all the detainees housed here are for serious criminal offenses. Charges against our current ICE detainees include murder, conspiracy to commit murder, child sex offense, assault, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, distribution of child pornography, rape, sex offense third degree, attempted murder and manslaughter.
We cannot stand by and let deceptive rhetoric continue to be disseminated by those who intentionally misinterpret the facts of an emotionally charged situation. We have been wholly transparent with activists, community organizations and journalists on this issue.
We need public support for our departing inmates, who need assistance when reentering our community. We can come together on areas of agreement to balance keeping our community safe and showing compassion for our neighbors. This type of op-ed damages our ability to build community awareness. Instead it spreads inconsistent misinformation about our facility which provides a necessary service for maintaining aspects of public safety in our community.
Mr. España’s conflict is with the federal ICE program, not the Howard County Detention Center, and I would encourage him — and those who publish his comments, such as the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier — to research and factcheck the many false claims they’ve made against our facility.
In a time where reliance on facts is waning and there is a rush to call all news “fake news,” I still believe in journalistic integrity and honesty. I believe in the media’s responsibility to hold both institutions they investigate and themselves accountable. And I expect that those who argue for policy change, like Mr. España, to abide by the truth in their arguments.
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The writer is the director of the Howard County Detention Center.