Latino man with little girl

Oscar Lopez Acosta of Dayton

Ohio’s first Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainee died earlier this week from COVID-19 after being detained at the Morrow County Correctional Facility.

Last week the Free Press reported how the jail – an ICE contracted county jail where many of their Columbus detainees are sent – is besieged by the virus, yet by all accounts the jail was woefully unprepared and its officers acted far too late to mitigate the spread.

Oscar Lopez Acosta, an early 40-something from suburban Dayton, was provisionally released from the jail on April 24th for being high-risk due to his diabetes, but was soon diagnosed with COVID-19, this according to immigration activist Anna Babel, who picked up Acosta after his release and returned him to his family.

After a week in a Dayton-area hospital Acosta was released but died on May 10th, Mother’s Day. The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office in Dayton confirmed with the Free Press that Acosta died from COVID-19.

There is no way to know whether Acosta contracted the virus while at the Morrow County Correctional Facility, but it is almost a certainty. On May 6th, the Morrow County Health District stated 50 of the 80 inmates had become infected with the coronavirus.

Acosta had been detained for 18 months at the jail, one of four Ohio county jails contracted by ICE to hold detainees. He was detained by ICE after a minor car accident in October of 2018 and held because he had previously been removed from the US, says Babel who spoke weekly with Acosta from the jail.

Acosta has no criminal history in the US, and by all accounts, a man of faith dedicated to his wife and three children.

“Oscar’s faith and his love for his family helped him to survive months of seemingly endless detention,” said Babel, also an associate professor at OSU’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “He was lovely and very laid-back individual and easy to get along with. We probably spent more time talking about his family and how much he missed them more than anything else in the time I spoke to him.”

During summers Acosta worked in construction and during winters at a Dayton-area chicken rendering and packing plant.

“I think it is a little ironic that if he had been working we would be calling him an essential worker and hero right now,” said Babel. “When you think about who’s working at the meat packing plants many of them are undocumented. There’s a double standard there.”

Babel says ICE has been sending detainees to the Morrow County Correctional Facility during the “whole pandemic”. Since mid-March the Ohio Immigrant Alliance and the Ohio ACLU have called for ICE to cease sending detainees to Ohio jails and release those in jail.

“They were bringing people in from all over. It was inevitable that somebody was going to come in with Covid and that everybody was going to catch it,” she said.

The Free Press for the better part of two weeks has taken calls from both inmates of the Morrow County Correctional Facility and their relatives. Many said the jail is not kept clean and those who work there don’t care who comes down with the virus. For instance, up until late April there was no soap for bathing unless you could purchase it yourself – and many could not, said Tamara Carpenter, a boyfriend of an inmate.

Babel said ICE is more to blame because they are adding immigrant detainees to an already overcrowded situation in a county jail more akin to a dorm or barracks instead of a prison facility where there are cells for isolation.

“There’s no separation, it’s more like a dorm, there’s no cells,” she says. “My impression when I visited the jail was that the corrections officers themselves were scared. They were terrified when I went to pick Oscar up.”

The Free Press found out last week the jail had been cited in the recent past by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for not complying with 15 “essential” or “important” standards.

One of those “essential” standards out of compliance was an “infectious disease control program.” At minimum, stated the report, the jail should have an “exposure control plan and standard isolation precautions for inmates and staff, which are updated annually.”

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction stated: “The jails current policy, procedure and practices need updated to reflect this standard and the components specified.”

What’s more, if Acosta had been a resident of Columbus he may never have been detained by ICE is the first place. Columbus is a de facto sanctuary city, meaning if Columbus police pull over an undocumented immigrant for a minor traffic violation they have been ordered by our city government to not alert ICE.

“This is not true for Dayton,” said Babel.

If not for a minor traffic accident – and of course our nation’s anger and fever to detain undocumented immigrants – Acosta could very well have continued to be a loving husband and father, and an essential worker putting food on our tables.

“What is definitely not up for debate is that his health was run down after spending 18 months in jail. He wasn’t able to withstand the virus,” said Babel.

A PayPal fund has been established to help the Acosta family pay for medical and funeral costs. Babel says all donations made through this account will be given to Acosta’s wife and children. Babel reports nearly $1,000 has been raised so far.