On Friday, as the unprecedented COVID-19 virus continued to wreak havoc on the world, several detainees at the Hudson County jail heard word that other detention centers were releasing inmates due to health concerns — New York City, for example, had identified 40 inmates at Rikers Island who could be released.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
So the detainees took action. On Friday, entire units of detainees began hunger striking, and by Sunday morning, more than 120 detainees under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody had joined.
“We are asking for our liberty as soon as possible,” said Yimy Aldair Benitez Lopez, one of the 270 individuals currently detained by ICE at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, also known as the Hudson County Corrections & Rehabilitation Center.
Lopez, a transgender individual and Honduras native, has lived in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region for much of their life.
“We don’t know when someone will be infected, and it will spread very quickly when it’s here,” Lopez, who has been in custody since November, said.
“We are scared because we have our families and friends outside and they could contract it and we wouldn’t be with them. This situation is very difficult with the pandemic here and across the world. We want to be with our families and friends during this time of panic and fear.”
Hudson County has a federal contract that calls for them to house ICE detainees at their jails. ICE detainees are housed in a separate facility from the rest of the population.
But medical and legal advocates have warned that even one case of COVID-19 “would be catastrophic in a detention facility,” Marie DeLuca, an emergency physician in New York City told Hudson County View on Friday.
Sources with knowledge of the situation, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said that an official from ICE spoke with the hunger strikers yesterday and said that the agency was reviewing the relevant cases.
ICE is considering releasing those who do not have “serious charges” on bond or ankle monitor or some other conditions, the sources said.
Inquiries seeking comment from ICE was not immediately returned on Sunday.
While the strikers wait for a response, the situation has only incurred added urgency.
In a tweet, the Brooklyn Defender Services, said there are two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the center, citing the head of the Hudson County jail.
The facility is going on full lockdown for 14 days, and they are going to lock people in their cells the entire day except for showers and “personal phone calls,” the social media post says.
At 6:34 p.m., the county confirmed on their website that two inmates tested positive for the coronavirus. The post said that no detainees or staff had a positive test at this time.
“Facility will be on COVID-19 protocol for 14 days which will include modified lock-down, daily temperature taking of staff, inmates and detainees, sanitizing of entire complex, case tracing,” the update says.
“Detainees provided with computer tablets in their cells to stay in contact with loved ones and will have their individual accounts funded to allow them to buy items from commissary as they may not be able to receive funds now from family and friends.”
‘ICE must act now’
Some of the detainees stopped striking this morning, but there are still 35 or so who are continuing, Lopez said.
But “if we don’t receive a response from ICE, the hunger strike will resume later this week,” Lopez said.
As COVID-19 continues to spread at a staggering rate, medical communities at-large have warned that jails, prisons and similar detention centers could be devastated by an outbreak — citing studies that show these facilities are highly susceptible to rapid transmission of virus and infectious diseases.
In a statement, detainees said the facility has an absence of any cleaning of their unit, as well as a lack of any cleaning supplies available to their unit: including Clorox or any other disinfectant
They also complained of having insufficient food to feed them and clogged toilets in their cells, among other things.
“As an example of their health concerns … a person was taken from their unit on Monday who was suspected of having COVID-19 and then brought back several days later without being told the test results,” said Rachel Levenson, an attorney with Make the Road NY who, along with Jackie Pearce, represents Lopez.
“This person continued to share a two-person cell and be in group spaces several times a day without knowing if they are spreading the disease.”
The individuals had contact with people who later revealed they had fevers. They were quarantined and eventually tested negative
“One detainee has returned to the detainee population,” a county spokesman tweeted. “The other was released from Hudson County Correction’s custody.”
Meanwhile, outside the facility, there are various efforts by attorneys and advocates urging ICE to release detainees, particularly those at heightened risk of complications of COVID-19 — not just at the Hudson center but at multiple detention centers.
Seven immigration detainees held at the Bergen, Hudson and Essex county jails have filed a lawsuit claiming they are at imminent risk of severe illness or death if they contract the coronavirus and are demanding they be released, according to a report from northjersey.com.
“ICE has broad authority to release individuals held in detention on bond, parole, or supervised release, and these hunger strikers and advocates are urging ICE to use this authority as a matter of public health,” Levenson said.
“This is a matter of life and death and when the disease spreads in these detention centers, as we know it will and as it has already in nearby jails like Riker’s Island, it will be ICE who is responsible for the lives claimed and hardship experienced by those impacted.”
“Every day that ICE delays in releasing the detainees, the greater the risk of transmission and suffering. ICE must act now.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated with new information.
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_