Judge asks for list of ICE detainees for potential release

Encourages government to freeze new Bristol detentions

A  FEDERAL JUDGE stopped short of ordering the release of federal immigration detainees being held in the Bristol County House of Correction, but he urged officials not to send new detainees there in light of concerns about transmission of the novel coronavirus in correctional facilities.

US District Court Judge William Young, in a hearing conducted Monday morning over videoconferencing, said he may consider releasing some detainees without a record of violent offenses and those with underlying medical conditions.

The hearing came after a federal suit was filed last Thursday by Lawyers for Civil Rights seeking the release of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees being housed at the facility due to concerns over the coronavirus spreading throughout the population. No detainees or staff at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19.

Young asked for a list of all 148 ICE detainees at the facility, including designation whether they are considered at high risk for COVID-19 complications. He requested diagrammed plans of the facility and photographs showing spacing between cells. He also asked that the Bristol County sheriff’s office, which operates the facility, and federal attorneys representing ICE submit affidavits from doctors working there outlining steps being taken to mitigate potential spread of the virus.

Oren Sellstrom, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said that plaintiffs are not asking ICE to give up custody of their detainees, and said the agency could continue to track them through electronic ankle bracelet monitoring. It’s crucial to order release of detainees now, he said, because if authorities wait until cases begin to appear at the facility, “it’s too late.”

Government lawyers disagreed, and said the 148 detainees were spread out among units, and the county has taken precautionary measures to ensure their safety. One of the government attorneys, Thomas Kanwit, even suggested that detainees might be safer where they are. “The fact that there aren’t any confirmed cases in the Bristol County sheriff’s office, and you look at the outside world where there are many — it suggests the Bristol sheriff is doing something right,” he said.

The Bristol County sheriff’s office is one of several county correctional systems that handles custody of immigration detainees under a contract with the federal government.

On Friday, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Jonathan Darling, said that every person who comes into custody there has a full intake and health screening.

“A health care professional will go out to the vehicle they’re in and see if they have symptoms, take their temperature, and ask a series of health questions,” he said. If the person is symptomatic, has been outside the US in recent weeks, or has come in contact with a COVID-19 patient, they are turned away and not accepted into custody without medical clearance, said Darling. No detainees have been tested for COVID-19 so far.

Young said he had reservations about the case proceeding as a class action, given the “factual differences” that could exist in the cases of 148 individuals. He said he had “grave concerns” over releasing detainees with violent conditions, those recently released from jails that have been taken into ICE custody, and those that have deportation orders.

But he said he would do his best to ensure the health safety of detainees and staff, which could mean releasing some in detention, signaling a willingness to review the cases of detainees with nonviolent records and preexisting medical conditions.

Young told Sellstrom, the attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, that he would like to hear more about where any released detainees they would go, whether they would be required to self-quarantine, and if they would be under house arrest.

Other groups taking part in the lawsuit include Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic and the Brazilian Workers’ Center in Boston.

In the past, the Bristol County sheriff’s office has said that about two-thirds of immigration detainees do not fall under “mandatory detention,” meaning they have committed nonviolent crimes or are being held only on the civil offense of being in the country illegally.

The suit names two plaintiffs, Maria Alejandra Celimen Savino and Julio Cesar Medeiros Neves. Savino suffers from asthma, one of the conditions listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as putting people at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Neves has extreme depression and anxiety, which his attorneys say are exacerbated by risk of exposure to the virus in detention.

Neves signed onto two letters sent recently by over 50 ICE detainees to Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the state Department of Public Health, ICE, and civil rights attorneys alleging unsanitary conditions and claiming there are guards who have shown up to work sick and been sent home.

The county says those guards have since returned to work with notes from their doctors, but has not said whether they were tested for COVID-19.

John Mohan, a spokesman for the New England office of ICE, said the agency has confidence in the Bristol sheriff’s office and its “commitment to safely and securely housing ICE detainees.” He declined to comment on the case further.

Two weeks ago, two physicians who do work for the Department of Homeland Security, under which ICE is housed, called for the release of immigrant detainees.

The ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit last week on behalf of two ICE detainees with underlying medical conditions being held at Plymouth County Correctional Facility. The two were released Friday.

There have also been calls by advocates for the release of some state and county inmates. Middlesex County has released more than 40 pretrial detainees due to concerns over the virus spreading in close quarters.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Young scheduled another hearing in the Bristol County case for Thursday.

“We’re encouraged that Judge Young is fully grappling with the gravity of the situation, and potential harm to detainees at Bristol County,” said Lawyers for Civil Rights spokesman Oren Nimni after the hearing. He expressed confidence that attorneys can put together acceptable plans for what would happen to any detainees who are released, and said that the organization will continue to pursue the case as a class action.