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The Last Months Of A Canadian Who Died Of COVID-19 In ICE Custody

Months after James Hill was supposed to be released from U.S. prison and reunited with his family in Canada, he died alone of COVID-19 in American immigration custody, hooked up to a ventilator and unable to speak. 

The former doctor from Newmarket, Ont. was caught in a torrent of events outside his control — immigration delays, the coronavirus pandemic and irresponsible actions on the part of American officials.

“He thought he was going to be free,” Hill’s daughter Verity told HuffPost Canada from her Toronto home. 

“I can’t stop thinking that he was ultimately given a death sentence. It’s injustice on top of injustice.” 

Hill was released from prison in April after serving 14 years for illegally distributing Oxycontin to patients at his Louisiana family practice, but was immediately detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

With an expired American green card and Canadian passport, Hill, 72, was sent to the for-profit Farmville Detention Center in Virginia to await deportation, scheduled to fly home July 9 — three months after the transfer. HuffPost has pieced together his final months at the facility through interviews, a lawsuit, news stories and public statements. 

The Farmville Detention Center on Aug. 12, 2020 in Farmville, Va. It has seen the worst coronavirus outbreak of any such facility in the United States.

Verity described her father as gentle and understanding, a man who was made an example of by the American justice system during former president George W. Bush’s war on drugs

The judge and federal prosecutor in the case both said Hill liberally handed out prescriptions for addictive painkillers to his patients, the National Post reported during Hill’s sentencing in 2007.

His criminal defence lawyer, Randal Fish, argued many of Hill’s patients didn’t have health insurance or access to pain specialists and needed help. He was “stunned” at the length of Hill’s sentence. 

“I’ve specialized in criminal defence law for close to 27 years now and this has to be, bar none, the most horrible, egregious miscarriage of justice I’ve seen in my life,” he said at the time.  

Hill tried to make the most of federal prison, running self-help groups and a horticultural program for other inmates, writing 11 books of poetry, a novel and countless letters to Verity. 

But Farmville was like nothing he had experienced before. 

A detainee lays on a dormitory bunk at a detention centre in Lumpkin, Ga. on Nov. 15, 2019.

A detainee lays on a dormitory bunk at a detention centre in Lumpkin, Ga. on Nov. 15, 2019.

“My father had lived in four different U.S. prisons. He said Farmville was the worst of any of them,” Verity said, adding Hill called his family regularly from the detention centre to keep them up to date.

“There was no sunlight, no privacy,” she said. “There was a bank of phones against one wall and always a lineup and nobody ever cleaned the phones. It just seems ridiculous.”

This spring, the hundreds of immigrants at Farmville were beginning to panic about the possible spread of COVID-19 — and the lack of resources to protect themselves from it. Hill was no exception. He lived alongside dozens of other men in a poorly ventilated dormitory, sleeping head-to-head in bunk beds and sharing bathrooms, showers and a cafeteria, without consistent access to cleaning supplies or masks. 

Detainees talk on the phones at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif. on Aug. 28, 2019.

Detainees talk on the phones at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif. on Aug. 28, 2019.

Meanwhile, protests were erupting across the country as Americans reacted to police killings of Black people, including George Floyd, and demanded an end to systemic racism and discrimination. 

In an effort to crack down on largely peaceful demonstrators in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump’s administration went to dangerous lengths to quickly mobilize tactical teams, including ICE officers, the Washington Post reported last week. ICE arranged charter flights for their officers, under the pretense the agency was transferring 74 detainees from half-empty facilities in Florida and Arizona to Farmville — 270 km south of the capital — according to the Post. 

“Immigration used people as plane tickets, while disregarding the health and safety of the people on those planes,” said Adina Appelbaum, a program director at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “It’s really upsetting to hear this behaviour led to so many people getting sick.” 

Watch: Police drive back protests outside the White House. Story continues below.

Local ICE officials pushed back on the transfers, said Farmville director Jeff Crawford to the town’s council last month, while addressing officials’ concerns about a reported outbreak at the facility.  

Farmville had only experienced a handful of COVID-19 cases that spring and staff worried they wouldn’t have enough space for social distancing if more people arrived. 

But headquarters assured them the facilities the detainees were coming from “had no instances of COVID-19,” Crawford said. 

“In hindsight, we believe we’ve discovered information that this was not accurate, but that is what we were told at the time.” 

Of the new detainees that arrived, 51 tested positive for COVID-19, alleges a lawsuit launched by four men against ICE and Farmville for their “woefully inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Two of the plaintiffs are being held in custody until their immigration hearings. The other two were granted permission by judges to stay in the U.S., but ICE is appealing those decisions.

The virus spread like “wildfire” throughout the facility, says the lawsuit. By mid-July, at least 315 detainees had tested positive — more than 80 per cent of Farmville’s population — and seven were hospitalized. 

In total, more than 5,000 people in ICE custody across the U.S. have come into contact with COVID-19. About 20, including Hill, have died so far in 2020. 

The disturbing, chaotic conditions Hill described to his family are similar to those alleged in the lawsuit, which has not yet been proven in court. 

Hill saw detainees without masks or gloves clean up vomit and feces of those who were sick, but not isolated, Verity said. Hill tried to sleep during the day to avoid interacting with others. He ate as little as possible, not wanting to go to the mess hall because detainees with COVID-19 symptoms were serving food that was expired, undercooked or infested with bugs.

“The way my dad put it, it was not a matter of if he gets COVID, but when,” Verity said.

Detainees gather in a common area at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019, during a media

Detainees gather in a common area at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif., on Aug. 28, 2019, during a media tour.

The immigrants who filed the lawsuit allege they never saw a doctor and were only ever given Tylenol to treat fevers, body pains, headaches and any difficulty breathing. They were not tested for days after first showing symptoms and three continued to live in the dorms.

One of the detainees, 27-year-old Gerson Amilcar Perez Garcia from Honduras, experienced severe COVID-19 symptoms, including diarrhea, a high fever and shortness of breath, and lost a total of 40 pounds, the lawsuit alleges. He was put in isolation with another sick detainee after six days of symptoms and given limited amounts of Tylenol and Gatorade. Guards checked on him once a day.

One night, Perez Garcia felt like he couldn’t breathe for an hour, the lawsuit says.  

“He panicked, and he screamed to the guards for help while banging on the window of his cell. He did this for about 10 minutes when he became so exhausted he had to stop.” 

No one responded to his cries.  

A detainee sits in a cell at an immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., on Sept. 10, 2019. 

A detainee sits in a cell at an immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., on Sept. 10, 2019. 

Crawford, Farmville’s director, denied the lawsuit’s allegations while speaking to town councillors in August.

“The notion we did not adequately respond to the COVID-19 situation at the facility is false. The notion that our staff and detainees are ill is false,” Crawford said. 

“The assertion that our detainees are not receiving medical care is false. The notion we are not conducting COVID-19 testing or that testing is inadequate is false. The notion our detainees don’t have access to (personal protective equipment) or soap is false.” 

Detainees leave the cafeteria under the watch of guards at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., on Sept. 26, 2019.

Detainees leave the cafeteria under the watch of guards at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, La., on Sept. 26, 2019.

On July 1, guards shot pepper spray into Hill’s dorm when inmates were too ill to stand up for the daily count, Verity said. Hill told his family he was exposed to the gas and began experiencing shortness of breath two days later.

He was taken to the hospital overnight, then returned to his dorm, Crawford told councillors, denying Hill was ever exposed to pepper spray. 

Hill’s breathing issues continued, though, so he was sent to the medical unit for observation. 

By July 9, Hill’s symptoms had only worsened, to the point he wasn’t allowed to board his flight home, Verity said. The day after he was supposed to be settling back in Canada, he was finally diagnosed with COVID-19 — his oxygen saturation levels were so low he was transferred to a hospital. 

“He didn’t want to go on a ventilator because he wanted to remain cognizant,” said Verity. “But at a certain point he was too breathless to speak and didn’t have a choice.” 

Verity and James Hill in 1986 in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Verity and James Hill in 1986 in Richmond Hill, Ont.

For the next four weeks, she and her family spoke to Hill over the phone, hoping he was listening to their words of encouragement. Verity suffered from extreme anxiety, grinding her teeth until they crumbled, fearful she’d lose not only her father, but the chance to reunite.

In a poem about that time, titled “That Contentious Border,” Verity wrote: 

“those days 

where I was waiting remain

a tense eternity

“I expected 

news of your recovery

you had to prevail 

or I’d know nothing certainly 

“adrift since

between no fixed points of now and then 

you were supposed

to share a quality of light, a shade of green with me 

on the stage of our reunion

“why how where is that resolved 

into a box that transports the remainders

across that contentious border.” 

On the night of Aug. 5, hospital staff told Hill’s family they were going to take him off life support. Verity had one last chance to say goodbye.  

“I told him that he’d given me his gift and I would use it to write him a life,” Verity said. 

Four months after entering ICE custody, Hill died. 

“There is tragic news, which is the death of a detainee,” Crawford said at the town council meeting. “But there’s a lot of good news as well.” 

Since July 10, he said they’ve administered more than 700 tests and documented no other detainees or staff with symptoms. 

“Yes, we’ve had many positive (tests), but there’s a great difference between testing positive and being sick.” 

 Watch: A public health crisis in unfolding in ICE detention facilities during the pandemic. Story continues below. 

However, a recent inspection done for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs found health care staff at Farmville were not monitoring detainees for ongoing symptoms nor properly screening them for COVID-19. Less than a quarter of the detainees were wearing masks.

ICE said in a statement it is conducting a review into Hill’s death. 

Canadian officials are aware of Hill’s death and are in contact with local authorities to gather information, said Global Affairs spokesperson Jason Kung. They are providing assistance to Hill’s family, but can provide no further information citing privacy reasons. 

Verity has dealt with her grief by sharing Hill’s story with advocacy groups and media, in the hopes it will create change for the people still detained in Farmville — taking the same stance as her father would.

“He had this attitude that humanity is a collective and we’re all responsible for each other. One person’s difficulties we share,” she said. “He didn’t see a divide between people.” 

Shortly after Hill was sentenced in 2007, Verity wrote to him, expressing her anguish. 

“How do you manage, now that the things you counted on are fantasies?” Verity asked. 

Hill’s response then rings true for Verity now.

“I breathe,” he wrote. “I become this simple act, not an inhabitant of this cell, a server of this sentence, or even a man …. Don’t fight the grief: it will just resurface elsewhere in anger.”

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