How a lack of personal care products contributes to harrowing conditions for detained migrants

A woman held at a Texas detention facility by US Border Patrol handed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a clear plastic packet roughly the size of her palm containing a clear substance. Purple text printed on the package reads Meridian Shampoo. “[S]he told me that this is all they give women to wash their entire body,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez earlier this week. “Nothing else. Some women’s hair was falling out. Others had gone 15 days without taking a shower.”

The congressional delegation of Democrats who visited two overcrowded detention centers in El Paso and Clint, Texas, on Monday were met by children and adults denied access to safe drinking water, kept in windowless, cold warehouses, and separated from their families; immigrants who were hungry, sick, and scared. Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues’ accounts accompany new detailed reports on the inhumane conditions that pervade inside Border Patrol facilities, and about the disturbing online behavior of many Border Patrol agents who police the grounds.

The detention centers housing children, like the one in Clint, are required by law to be safe and sanitary. “And there is nothing sanitary about the conditions they are in,” lawyer and child advocate Warren Binford told the New Yorker after she and a team of attorneys interviewed dozens of children detained at Clint. “And they are not safe, because they are getting sick.”

With reporting from the New York Times on “the stench” permeating the Clint detention center, an odor belying stained clothes, diaperless toddlers, and babies caked in dirt, questions emerge on the lack of products that might otherwise be considered health and hygiene necessities. The Meridian shampoo packet sheds light on the little that detainees have access to, and — more critically — what they don’t.

Detainees receive next to no supplies for basic needs

“Meridian Clear Shampoo Packet, .35 Oz” — like the one Ocasio-Cortez shared — hails from Bob Barker, “America’s Leading Detention Supplier,” its site boasts. As Vice reports, using Federal Procurement Data System’s records, US Customs and Border Protection — Border Patrol’s overseeing agency, aka CBP — contracted Bob Barker in at least 10 instances between 2013 and 2017. Line items for “Personal Toiletry Articles” are listed at $3,177.93 in 2013 and $0 in 2017.

Among Meridian’s ingredients: Methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone, two preservatives that nonprofit Environmental Working Group report are associated with allergic reactions and irritation of the skin, eyes and lungs. Lab studies on methylisothiazolinone indicate that the chemical may also be neurotoxic in vitro — or, carry potential to damage developing nervous systems.

Bob Barker sells Meridian Clear Shampoo by the case at $94.07 per 1000 packets — it’s among the supplier’s cheaper offerings. Bob Barker also sells a number of other products on its Hygiene & Personal Care page, including body washes from Olay, Suave, and Dove, and bar soap from Dial, Zest, and Bob Barker-branded antibacterial. And they sell toothbrushes and toothpaste, two of the items that the New York Times reported are not distributed to children held at Clint. Requests to Bob Barker for comment were unanswered at the time of publication.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that asylum seekers detained in private detention centers overseen by ICE can buy toothpaste in the commissary — for $11.02 per 4 oz tube of Sensodyne. (Bob Barker doesn’t sell Sensodyne, but does sell Colgate Cavity Protection by the case at $2.32 per 4 oz tube, and an off-brand sensitive toothpaste for even less.) On the $1/day that detainees at Adelanto Detention Facility can earn for working menial jobs, the decision comes down to maintaining hygiene versus managing hunger. Ramen is only 58 cents, reports Reuters, equivalent to half a day’s labor at Adelanto.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez touring the Border Patrol Facility housing children on July 1, 2019 in Clint, Texas.
Christ Chavez/Getty Images

Low wages for undesirable work drive the US prison economy. Inmates serving long sentences at federal, state and for-profit prisons hope to save enough money to phone loved ones, send and receive email, hire attorneys and contribute to their defense, and send money home, let alone take basic care of themselves, as I reported for Racked in 2016. From Racked: “But prison laborers are not commensurately paid. They’re not protected by OSHA. They’re forbidden from organizing into unions. They’re not eligible for workers’ comp. Inmates can be ordered to work for nothing. None of this is illegal.”

Rules on what personal care items detention centers must give detainees are few and far between. In June, the Justice Department’s lawyer Sarah Fabian argued in court that the law’s “safe and sanitary” stipulation doesn’t mandate that the government provide detained children with soap or toothbrushes, a position that baffled judges. CPB currently holds 2,000 children in federal custody a day.

According to the National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO), touted as “your primary resource dedicated to serving those that operate jails, detention and correctional facilities,” soap, toilet paper, toothbrush and “cleaning agent,” comb, sanitary napkins or tampons, and lotion (if medically needed) “should be provided at no cost to inmates.” But these are only guidelines; laws and statues, according to NIJO, are left to the states and jails’ jurisdiction.

Because detention centers don’t provide immigrants held with their basic needs, many with the chance to work have no choice but to. As Reuters puts it, “Detainees are challenging what they say is an oppressive business model in which the companies deprive them of essentials to force them to work for sub-minimum wages, money that is soon recaptured in the firms’ own commissaries.”

And yet, many detention centers are meant to be temporary facilities (though they’ve proven to have violated that promise, holding kids for months rather than days). As such, many don’t create opportunities to make any income, however minimal. There’s at least one unofficial route for detainees, though. Attorney Binford told the New Yorker of a teen at Clint tasked by Border Patrol with maintaining order among the other kids “as the unofficial guard” in exchange for more food.

Detention centers refuse donations that would provide care they’re unwilling to give

In the absence of CBP distributing necessities like soap, toothpaste and diapers, Texas citizens are stepping up. But as the Texas Tribune reports, their generosity has been met with rejection thanks to a nineteenth century law: The Antideficiency Act, which forbids government agencies from accepting private donations.

“It’s partially a constitutional thing about Congress controlling the purse and only being able to spend money that Congress gives, but it’s also about ethics,” former CPB policy adviser Theresa Brown told the Tribune.

Whether or not Border Patrol’s hands are tied when it comes to supplying detainees with basic care amenities, the existence of a secret Facebook group rife with hate speech indicates that some agents do not have migrants’ health and survival in mind.

ProPublica released a report July 1 on a secret Border Patrol Facebook group around 9,500 members strong — a number equal to almost half of the nation’s 20,000 Border Patrol agents, Ocasio-Cortez points out — where present and past agents made light of migrants’ deaths. They also joked about inciting violence against Democratic congresspeople during their July 1 facilities tour, and questioned the authenticity of the Associated Press photo of a father and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande after Border Patrol denied them asylum. Comments on posts range from racist (“throw a […] burrito at these bitches”), to sexually violent (“Fuck the hoes,” not to mention a lewd photoshop of Ocasio-Cortez), to apathetic (“If he dies, he dies”).

In response, US Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost tweeted, “These posts are completely inappropriate & contrary to the honor & integrity I see—& expect—from our agents. Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

Employees of at least one company reportedly doing business with Border Patrol, meanwhile, are speaking out against their CEO. Last week nearly 550 Wayfair workers staged walkouts outside company headquarters in San Francisco and Boston after reports of a $200,000 order including kids’ beds for a contractor known to work with detention centers emerged.

Filthy facilities and poor quality of life can breed disease

It’s not just hygiene and nutrition needs that aren’t being met. The abhorrent living conditions seen in reports show that sleep for some detained migrants is nearly impossible: Fluorescent lights remain on overhead 24 hours a day, intense cold temperatures blast the warehouse, children and adults lie on concrete, sometimes under an aluminum foil blanket, sometimes not. Without access to clean drinking water, detained women at Clint are directed by Border Patrol agents to drink from the toilet, says Ocasio-Cortez.

The lack of clean drinking water, clean hand washing water (let alone clean bathing water), and much-needed medicine, alongside overcrowded quarters and poor nutrition, have yielded outbreaks of flu and lice. Physician Dolly Lucio Sevier’s medical review of a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, as reported by ABC News, declared the conditions “tantamount to intentionally causing the spread of disease.” A 16-year-old from Guatemala died at McAllen in May after being diagnosed with the flu. As of June, two dozen detainees have died in ICE custody since Donald Trump took office.

In anecdotal reports, Border Patrol seems to have made certain health-related products available as needed. But as one story from attorney Binford suggests, reported by the New Yorker, the lice shampoo and two lice combs allotted to a group of 25 kids at Clint came at great cost. “And then what happened was one of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb.”

A 2007 paper on infections in jails and prisons published in scientific journal Clinical Infectious Diseases reported that inmates are at high risk for catching any number of diseases, including airborne viruses and treatment-resistant staph infections. Jails and prisons were not designed “to minimize the transmission of disease or to efficiently deliver health care,” writes Joseph Bick, paper author and chief medical executive at California Correctional Health Care Services.

“The probability of transmission of potentially pathogenic organisms is increased by crowding, delays in medical evaluation and treatment, rationed access to soap, water, and clean laundry” among other factors, adding that, “the abrupt transfer of inmates from one location to another further complicates the diagnosis of infection, interruption of transmission, recognition of an outbreak, performance of a contact investigation, and eradication of disease.”

Last week, more than 100 detained children were transported back to Clint, only days after 249 kids were transported out.

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