The concentration of corona virus deaths in Rhode Island nursing homes shows that living together and COVID-19 is a “lethal combination,” Deborah S. Gonzalez, also an ACLU lawyer, said.
“Immigrants held there should not be sentenced to death,” he said. “Because ICE will not release these prisoners and prevent the possibility of their death, we have no choice but to file this lawsuit.”
Wyatt, a non-profit prison run by pseudo-public companies, did not comment on the ACLU lawsuit, said spokesman Christopher D. Hunter.
But in a statement given to the court, Wyatt detailed the steps taken to stop the spread of the virus. For example, Wyatt said he was screening all detainees for virus-related symptoms, “including COVID-19 testing and 16-day quarantine for all new prisoners.” And that said it was creating a quarantine unit and turning 160 cells into a negative pressure environment.
Despite the “best efforts”, Wyatt said he had his first positive test for COVID-19 on April 21, and the detainee was immediately placed in medical isolation.
“Given that Wyatt is an environment very similar to nursing homes and hospitals, and coronaviruses spread easily as a respiratory-based disease, we and [the state Department of Health] anticipating that we will have additional cases and are fully prepared to respond to these cases, “the statement said.
In a status report filed with the court on Thursday, Wyatt said it now detained 536 people, including 70 ICE prisoners. Of the 405 prisoners tested for the corona virus, 46 of them tested positive – with 11 “cleared” and 35 “active cases” – and 49 tests awaiting.
Of the 310 staff members tested, 12 had positive test results – with one “cleared” and 11 “active cases” – and 26 tests were waiting, Wyatt reported.
Goldstein believes that Wyatt waited too long to react to the virus and basically “continued business as usual” until the end of April.
He said the prisoners went on a hunger strike on April 4, demanding to know what Wyatt would do to protect them from the virus. Instead of giving answers, Wyatt put them in lockdown and punished the leaders of the hunger strike, he said.
Also, Goldstein said government lawyers initially dismissed fears of an outbreak in Wyatt as “pure speculation.”
“Now this is a big epidemic, and is not responsible for holding civilian prisoners in this situation,” he said. “We have to get people out of there before it’s too late.”
The lawsuit says the only effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to distance society – with people who are at least six feet apart – but that is not possible in Wyatt.
Detainees are placed with cellmates in cells about 5 feet x 9 feet long, they eat together at a small shared table, and they share a shared bathroom and telephone that is not disinfected when used, according to lawsuits.
The only way to avoid the “exponential COVID-19 outbreak” in Wyatt is to start releasing prisoners, according to the lawsuit.
Where will they go?
Goldstein said that in other cases, the court had ensured that detainees were released to locations where they could be monitored, possibly by GPS tracking, and remained under quarantine. That could include the homes of family members or non-profit groups that provide housing for newly released prisoners, he said.
Finally, prisoners can return to ICE detention when safe, or they can be deported safely, Goldstein said.
On Wednesday, District Judge A. Mary S. McElroy held a telephone conference with lawyers for both parties in this case.
After hearing the argument, he temporarily endorsed class 70 immigration in Wyatt, giving Wyatt and ICE lawyers until Tuesday to oppose final certification. The class will be represented by three prisoners: Oscar Yanes, Gagik Mkrtchian, and Wendell Baez Lopez.
The judge also set a date to deal with plans to deport 70 ICE prisoners and whether the court should stop Wyatt from accepting new ICE prisoners.
Goldstein said ICE plans to deport 16 of 70 detainees, and while the ACLU does not oppose the deportation, ICE is trying to ensure they are not threatened in the process by, for example, being sent to Louisiana detention facilities facing the COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, the ACLU requested a security check seeking the release of other ICE prisoners.
The lawsuit was filed by ACLU, Gonzalez and Goldstein, and lawyers from the Morgan Lewis company.
Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney for the ACLU National Prison Project, noted that Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia – a 57-year-old man who had lived in the United States for four decades – recently became the first person to die of COVID-19 while in custody immigration, at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego.
“There is no doubt that we are facing a public health and humanitarian crisis if ICE does not immediately free more people,” Cho said. “We urge the court to take swift action to reduce the worst of the tragedy.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be contacted at [email protected]
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