Some 17 men crowd into a dorm that measures perhaps 800 square feet. Bunk beds are about three feet apart, and the detainees share a toilet, sink, shower and dining area. Cleaning supplies are scarce.
In the detention facility where Romanian immigrant Zoltan Tamas is being held, social distancing doesn’t exist.
Some 17 men crowd into a dorm that measures perhaps 800 square feet, said Tamas, a West Palm Beach homeowner who once worked at President Donald Trump’s properties in Palm Beach County. Bunk beds are about three feet apart, and the detainees share a toilet, sink, shower and dining area.
The coronavirus pandemic has raised fears that jails, prisons and detention facilities could become infection hot zones, and that’s precisely what worries Tamas.
Cleaning supplies are scarce. Gloves, masks and hand sanitizer aren’t available.
Detainees clean the floors with “plain water,” no soap, Tamas said. Guards greet requests for extra mini-bars of soap with a joke: “Are you going to take it home?”
“I don’t think they realize the gravity of the situation,” Tamas said in a phone interview Thursday.
The entire group shares an allotment of a dozen Clorox wipes a day.
“It’s not enough,” Tamas said. “The hygiene is terrible.”
ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment. Tamas’ fears about infection come against a broader backdrop of poor health care for inmates and detainees.
With reports of positive tests in a few detention centers around the country, some immigration advocates have called for the release of detainees, a request unlikely to find favor with a president who ran on a platform of cracking down on immigration.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before the virus found its way into immigration detention,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights.
For the past 16 months, Tamas has been held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Wakulla County jail in Crawfordville, near Tallahassee. Tamas, a longtime resident and holder of a U.S. green card, has been detained because of what he calls a bogus criminal case in his home country of Romania.
As of 11 a.m. Thursday, Wakulla County had no reported cases of coronavirus, although just 26 people had been tested, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Tamas’ wife and attorneys are working to free him. In the meantime, he has grown disturbed by the lack of precautions in the Wakulla County facility.
Guards frequently come within two feet of detainees. Tamas, 38, said he saw one sneeze and cough while standing just outside the detainees’ dorm, then touch a railing also touched by detainees.
“The guards are coming in and out. Some wear gloves, some don’t wear gloves. Some have masks, some don’t have masks,” Tamas said. “They are laughing. They are saying, ‘Oh, no, they are exaggerating on the TV.’”
A jail employee passes out razors every morning, touching each with bare hands, Tamas said. While many Americans think twice about handshakes and fist bumps, the chaplain who regularly visits continues to shake hands and exchange high fives.
“He said, ’If you have Christ in you, the virus won’t affect you,’” Tamas said.
Tamas guesses that perhaps 100 detainees are held in Wakulla County. The facility also includes the county jail, and Tamas said it’s easy to imagine the coronavirus spreading amid the close quarters and the turnover of inmates at the adjacent jail.
While Tamas said he’s as scrupulous as he can be about sanitation in a facility with limited cleaning supplies, not all of his fellow detainees are so careful.
“Different cultures, different habits,” Tamas said. “Some people don’t wash their hands after they pee. Some people don’t wash their hands after they take a dump. It’s very unsanitary.”
Tamas said he has caught the seasonal flu twice during his time in Wakulla County. In both instances, he was forced to wait for over-the-counter medications.
The detainees in his dorm are allowed to go outside for just 90 minutes a day, five days a week, Tamas said.
He shudders to think how the jail would contain a virus known to be highly contagious.
“There’s no way to stop the contamination,” Tamas said.
Tamas’ work history in the U.S. includes stints as an armed guard at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach and at Trump National in Jupiter and as a driver for the Trump family. Most recently, Tamas worked as a driver for a car service operated by an active member of West Palm Beach’s police force.
He was detained in 2018 after a routine check-in at an ICE office in Stuart.
His wife and their two children, also natives of Romania, live in West Palm Beach. They became U.S. citizens in 2017.
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This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.