Detainees at jail say they fear COVID-19 outbreak

In letter, 51 say they are packed too close together

IMMIGRANT DETAINEES being held by the federal government at the Bristol County House of Correction say they are packed so close together that an outbreak of COVID-19 would spread rapidly through the facility.  

A letter signed by 51 detainees in unit B said 57 of the 66 bunk beds are occupied with only three feet between the beds, about half the distance suggested for social distancing.  

“This is unacceptable to the health and wellbeing of all detainees,” the letter said. 

The detainees, who are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, say prison officials in personal comments and posted notes have admitted the facility is extremely vulnerable to infection because of the close quarters. Yet they said correction officers twice showed up for work recently exhibiting what appeared to be symptoms associated with COVID-19. 

Ira Alkalay, an attorney who represents five detainees in the prison, passed along a signed copy of the letter, which was addressed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the American Civil Liberties Union 

Alkalay said the facility’s administration has banned all visitors except for attorneys in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, but he said unit B is continuing to add prisoners. 

To reduce crowding at the facility, the detainees urged officials to release those with serious medical conditions, those who haven’t been charged with aggravated felonies, those who have not had their bond hearings, and those who have consented to deportation. Fifty-one inmates signed the letter, and included their personal prison ID numbers.  

READ THE LETTER HERE.

Hodgson’s office said that there were two officers who worked in the ICE facility that went home sick this week, and returned to work with notes from doctor’s clearing them for duty. It is unclear if they were tested for COVID-19.  

His spokesman, Jonathan Darling, said that a medical professional never told a detainee that an outbreak is imminent. “Complete lie,” he wrote in an emailed message. Our medical and security staff have been speaking to all inmates and detainees about the COVID situation and the dangers and risks of infection. Never did anyone tell any inmate or detainee that an outbreak is going to happen. There are currently no cases or suspicion of Coronavirus among any inmate, detainee or staff member.” 

On Thursday night, Hodgson wrote on Twitter said he opposed efforts to release detainees because it would increase “public safety and public health risks,” in part because detainees would not be able to finish drug treatment programs. 

“It’s not the right time to open the doors and release inmates,” he tweeted. “It’s the absolute worst time.”  

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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 long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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.

The Department of Public Health said it intends to comment on the letter. ICE did not respond to requests for comment. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is one of several advocacy groups that has called for decarceration – the release of individuals from jails who are pretrial and those who have compromised immune systems. Other organizations, like Prisoners’ Legal Services, have asked ICE, Hodgson, and Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald to release ICE detainees out of concern over prison outbreak of COVID-19.