St. Francis Xavier pastor working to free detainees during pandemic

Concerns of COVID-19 outbreak at detention center


Father Bob Flannery likes to recall to the message of love of Jesus Christ as he works to protect the lives of immigrant detainees in one southern Illinois detention center.

Father Bob, pastor of Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Carbondale, is a founding member of Detained Immigrant Spiritual Care, an organization started in 2018 by members of Carbondale’s Interfaith Council and trained volunteers of a variety of faiths and languages.

The group offers compassion, spiritual strength, and companionship to immigrant detainees.
However, in the 18 months since its founding the group has struggled to gain access to immigrant detainees at Pulaski County Detention Center in Ullin.

According to an April 9 story in The Southern Illinoisian newspaper, there have been three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in people who are detained in the detention center. It is unknown how many cases there are today.

Officials at the detention center stated that those infected persons were isolated upon arrival and have not exposed others.

One employee reportedly has also tested positive for the coronavirus as of April 9.

Father Bob called the situation at the detention center where there have been reports of an outbreak of the coronavirus a “public health and a human rights emergency.”

“Our leaders must take action to release people who are detained to allow them to shelter in place with family or in appropriate community settings,” he said. “Crowded conditions in detention will lead to a public health crisis for the people detained, for workers, and for the community.”

Father Bob said action is urgently needed to release detainees and to reduce population in the detention center before widespread exposure and a larger outbreak occurs.

Most of the population at Pulaski County, about 130 persons, are asylum seekers or immigrant detainees held under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many are accused of being in the U.S. illegally, which, though not a crime, is a civil infraction that can result in deportation.

Nationwide, there are 38,000 immigrants and asylum seekers in ICE detention.

The group would also like to see the end of Pulaski County’s contract with ICE, as well as the release of all people held in immigrant detention.

“We’re concerned about their welfare in such tight quarters,” Father Bob said. “It’s difficult for any of us no matter the situation to try to maintain that social distancing. I am also concerned because we have been trying to reach out to the detainees there for the last 18 months so they can have spiritual counseling or spiritual care and to no avail have we received any word that we can do so.”

Long before the current coronavirus pandemic, Detained Immigrant Spiritual Care members tried to contact Pulaski County Sheriff Randy Kern and warden Damon Acuff and others to see if they could provide spiritual care for the detainees, but they have yet to receive a response.

To visit a detainee in ICE custody you must know the detainees’ name and ICE number.

“With the exception of three detainees transferred from up north, we don’t have this information, so we haven’t been able to visit,” Father Bob said.
“It’s been frustrating. I don’t know that Pulaski County officials are intentionally ignoring us. They may just be overwhelmed or understaffed,” he said.
In a statement released April 9, the Pulaski County Board of Commissioners said:
“As many of you are aware on April 7, 2020, the Pulaski County Detention Center experienced an outbreak of the COVID-19 “Coronavirus.” Pulaski County has worked with the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Southern Seven Health Department to mitigate the spread and treat those individuals infected with this virus.

Pulaski County’s emergency response agencies are equipped and prepared to respond to all assistance calls using the appropriate personal protective equipment as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, Illinois Department of Public Health, and our local Southern Seven Health Department.”

Emailed questions to Warden Acuff from The Messenger were unreturned at press time.

Before the pandemic, Detained Immigrant Spiritual Care member Dr. Anna Migone was able to visit three detainees for whom she had names and numbers.

“They were extremely grateful for the visit,” she said. Dr. Migone said that the detainees seldom had visits from family members who often live long distances away.

“The detainees might not even have money to make a phone call,” she said. “And their families might live several states away, and there is nowhere for them to stay if they visit the detention center.”

Father Bob recently recorded a video message on the group’s YouTube page in which he said, “As Christians we know Jesus bid us to visit prisoners, to be with those who are less fortunate,” he said. “These days of the pandemic, the less fortunate are those people who can easily catch this virus because of the lack of social distancing.”

In the meantime, another immigrants rights group, the Southern Illinois Immigrant Project, has set a goal of collecting 150 cloth masks for the people detained in the Pulaski County Detention Center.

Recently the group made a delivery of masks, bilingual instructions, messages of encouragement, and some hand soap to the Pulaski County Courthouse for the detainees.

The group was able to deliver one mask for each person detained at the detention center. They are now hoping to collect enough masks to make a second delivery so detainees will be able to wear one mask while the other one is being washed.

Father Bob is also asking that Catholics reach out to the governor of Illinois and other officials who can facilitate the safe release of the detainees.

“They are detainees, not criminals,” he stressed. “We just want them to be safe and healthy. Their asylum or immigration process can perhaps move forward later, but for now we need to save their lives.”

To help, call or write:
1) Midwest ICE Director, Robert Guadian
P: (312) 347-2400, #9 & ask to leave a message for the director, Go to to send a letter
2) IL Gov. Pritzker, P: 217-782-6830 or 217-782-6831
3) Pulaski County Sheriff Randy Kern
P: 618-748-9374, email: [email protected]
4) You can also call senators and representatives to exercise oversight.
Detainees over 50 or medically vulnerable can join the ACLU suit for release: email [email protected]