Social distancing is not an option for people in prison and ICE detention

Families recount painful conversations with loved ones inside detention centers and join advocates demanding action that detainees be protected against spread of the coronavirus.

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SOURCEYes! Magazine

The wife of a man who has been at ICE Northwest Processing Center for the past month says misinformation and as well as lack of information over the coronavirus is fueling panic and confusion among detainees.

The stories detainees are being told by officials at the ICE center keep changing, only adding to the confusion and fear, she says, asking that their names be withheld to prevent retaliation.

This past week, after inmates initiated a lunchtime hunger strike, demanding to be released with ankle bracelets or “sent back to Mexico, or whatever country they were getting sent to, officers told them no one would be allowed to leave. They said, ‘there are no airplanes, no flights, no transportation. Go back to your bed. There’s no COVID-19 in here.’”

Through tears, her husband told her: “We’re telling them to get us out of here. Nobody wants to die in here.”

Emerging stories about lack of action to prevent the spread of coronavirus among the detained and incarcerated are triggering a loud and growing call for action from families and advocates across the country. They want states and the federal government to reduce the number of people in immigrant detention centers as well as prisons and jails nationwide.

Specifically, they are seeking the release of all immigrants in detention, and they want jails and prisons to release older adults, those most medically vulnerable, and those posing no public threat, among other actions. The Department of Homeland Security’s own medical experts have now added their voices to the call, urging the department to consider releasing all immigrant detainees who don’t pose a risk to public safety “before it’s too late.”

“We have always known our people detained are not safe under ICE custody,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, founder of La Resistencia, a Washington-based grassroots organization that advocates for an end to detentions and deportations. “Now that the world is almost at a standstill, ICE continues business as usual: immigration raids, detentions, medical neglect, deportations, terror.”

Photo from La Resistencia.

Crowded conditions and limited access to medical care make any type of detention facility a cauldron for infectious disease, point out advocates such as Villalpando. And as the coronavirus continues to spread across the country corrections officials are apparently coming to recognize that the nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated people have no option for practicing social distancing.

In Los Angeles County, which has the most inmates of any county prison system in the United States, law enforcement agencies will reduce arrests and actively release inmates. Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is, has already begun to release low-level offenders to minimize a potential outbreak.

And in New York, which has the highest number of confirmed cases in the country, the New York City Board of Correction said New York City should start releasing inmates who are at higher risk from COVID-19 infection—and make efforts to rapidly decrease the jail population.

“The city’s jails have particular challenges to preventing disease transmission on a normal day, and even more so during a public health crisis,” the New York Board said in a statement.

In a letter sent to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, dozens of community advocates and organizations outlined a series of steps the state can take to #FlattenTheCurve on infection rates and protect the lives of those confined to jails and prisons. They included releasing people incarcerated for poverty violations, expanding preventative health care measures for those incarcerated, and expanding kiosks inside jails and prisons to allow more visits between inmates and their loved ones.

One detainee at the ICE Northwest Processing Center said she shared a pod with another woman who appeared to be suffering from the fever before being removed to isolation.

On March 13, two units of inmates at the state’s Monroe Correctional Complex were put under quarantine after a worker tested positive for COVID-19. On March 19, ICE revealed that a member of the health staff at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“It is apparent we are in a state of emergency,” said JM Wong, an organizer with the Covid19mutualaid Instagram group, which also issued the call for action. “But that drastic urgency is not reflected in the courts, jails, and prison facilities.”

And apparently not in detention centers either. Each day on average, some 40,000 immigrants are held in privately run detention centers as well as state-run jails and prisons across the country.

In a letter to ICE Enforcement Acting Director Matthew T. Albence, Detention Watch Network and more than 800 partner organizations called for an end to all enforcement operations and widespread lockdowns inside the facilities and free phone and video calls for detainees, as well as free soap sanitizers and other hygiene products.

“Jails, prisons, and detention centers are sites where people are acutely vulnerable to health complications and the impact of outbreaks,” the network and partners say in the letter.

In 2018 and 2019, for example, the GEO Group-owned Northwest ICE Processing Center saw repeated outbreaks of varicella and mumps, with these diseases spreading through multiple pods inside the facility. “Choosing to deprive people of their freedom contributes to the already lethal conditions of mass confinement,” Detention Watch said in its letter.

On Wednesday, ICE announced plans to pause immigration enforcement for non-criminal cases inside the country during the outbreak, but said nothing about releasing any detainees.

Photo from La Resistencia.

This week, the ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Western Washington against the agency on behalf of nine inmates at the Northwest ICE Processing Center —eight of them members of La Resistencia. The plaintiffs are older adults and/or people with medical conditions such as lung disease and autoimmune disorders that make them a high risk of serious COVID-19 infection.

“People who are confined in prisons, jails, and detention centers will find it virtually impossible to engage in the necessary social distancing and hygiene required to mitigate the risk of transmission, even with the best-laid plans,” the suit says. “For this reason, correctional public health experts have recommended the release from custody of people most vulnerable to COVID-19.”

In its response, ICE argued that the implications for releasing detainees from a facility with no confirmed COVID-cases into a metropolitan area at epicenter of the U.S. outbreak are “staggering.”

ICE said that since February 2014, it has maintained a pandemic workforce protection plan, which it last updated in May 2017 and which provides specific guidance for biological threats such as COVID-19.

The agency also said it’s been tracking the outbreak since the initial report, “regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”

On March 19, the federal district court ruled it would not immediately release detainees.

Loved ones of the detainees say they feel helpless.

Another relative, whose husband has been in the Northwest center since June, said he’s in his 50s and suffers from asthma. He was picked up after missing a court date and has a hearing scheduled for April.

In her phone conversation with him recently, she said, he downplayed his concerns so his family wouldn’t worry, though she can only imagine those worries are mounting.

“He told me they’ve not been allowed outside for eight days,” she says. “How am I feeling? I’m stressed and hoping there’s something that can be done to get him out of there,” she says. “I’m worried about him. When he was at home and got asthma, it got really, really bad to the point where he couldn’t breathe. My fingers are crossed.”

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