WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An influx of hundreds of immigration detainees at a U.S. prison in California is straining its medical staff and raising concerns about the adequacy of healthcare for detainees and inmates, several employees at the prison have told Reuters.
The Victorville Federal Correctional Institution, a prison for convicted criminals about 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is temporarily housing up to 1,000 men detained by federal immigration officials as a result of the U.S. administration’s crackdown on illegal border crossings.
Even before the immigration detainees started arriving earlier this month, the prison was down to one clinical physician, six physician assistants and a handful of nurses, according to prison roster records and interviews with several employees this week.
All the employees interviewed by Reuters spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak with the media.
The medical staff cares for about 4,500 inmates and detainees in total. About 1,600 of those have “chronic” healthcare needs, sources told Reuters.
“We are not able to meet the very basic needs ... for either population,” one prison employee told Reuters, adding that many of the detainees have colds, scabies and sore throats.
One detainee arrived with chickenpox, requiring staff to quarantine other detainees exposed to the virus, according to internal documents and people familiar with the matter.
“This is just the very beginning. We have over 1,000 physicals to do and we’ve only done a couple hundred,” the same person added.
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), part of the Justice Department, said in a statement on Wednesday there were “sufficient staff” in the section of the Victorville facility where the detainees were held, and all detainees were medically screened upon arrival.
“We continue to provide a safe and appropriate environment for the detainees including medical treatment and protection from communicable diseases,” the statement added.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Dani Bennett said the agency was “confident in the care and oversight” provided by the prison.
President Donald Trump has taken a hardline approach to immigration since taking office in January 2017. On April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy urging criminal prosecution of everyone who illegally crosses the U.S.-Mexico border, straining government resources.
Previously, the Obama administration had reduced the number of criminal cases it brought against those illegally crossing the border, after a prior surge in prosecutions strained the government system.
The BOP has agreed to temporarily let ICE rent up to 1,600 beds at five federal prisons to house detainees.
The five prisons, which normally hold convicted criminals or people awaiting trial, got little warning before the detainees started arriving and little guidance on how to look after them as they await civil immigration proceedings, prison workers have told Reuters previously.
Nurses from other prisons are temporarily helping at Victorville with detainee medical screening, according to interviews with employees and internal BOP emails.
But employees said they were sceptical a 14-day deadline required by BOP patient care policy for completing required physical exams of new arrivals could be met.
They also said there was confusion about ICE’s authority over when detainees can be hospitalized. For instance, a detainee with abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhoea was recently denied emergency room care and medical staff are concerned about him, according to interviews and prison records.
“The health services division has been a disaster,” another concerned employee said.
Bennett, the ICE spokeswoman, said that BOP could immediately treat its detainees on site and transport them to local hospitals during medical emergencies. However, BOP is required to seek approval from ICE for non-emergent care.
Aggravating the situation is that many ICE detainees do not speak English and cannot communicate their medical histories. “They nod, and that is about all,” said a third employee.
Thousands of jobs at the Bureau of Prisons are being cut under Sessions’ leadership, and the Justice Department is calling for more staff cuts in fiscal 2019.
“You can’t run a prison on the cheap,” said Eric Young, the national president for the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prisons union, during a press conference on prison staff cuts in Washington on Wednesday.
A 2016 Justice Department inspector general report criticized the bureau for not adequately filling medical staff positions.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Bernadette Baum