Medical, legal pundits warn that ICE detainees & prisoners could be ‘devastated’ by COVID-19

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Earlier this month, two attorneys visited the Hudson County Correctional Facility to speak with their clients, one on March 4, and one on March 6, county officials revealed in a social media thread.

By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View

Less than two weeks later, on March 16, both legal attorneys called the corrections facility to report that they had fevers, and that they each had friends who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the social media post said.

The two individuals, who had originally been detained by ICE, were quarantined and swabbed, yet showed no symptoms.

On Thursday, their tests came back negative, and both individuals were released from their quarantine.

“One detainee has returned to the detainee population,” a county spokesman tweeted. “The other was released from Hudson County Correction’s custody.”

In a matter of days, the world has plunged into crisis mode as COVID-19 has spread to more than 150 countries, torn through financial markets, and upended daily life for people around the world.

As the pandemic continues to spread at a staggering rate, medical and legal professionals are raising alarms over the “serious harms facing individuals in immigration detention facilities,” as well as the general population in these facilities.

“Even one case of coronavirus, the way that it’s spreading, would be catastrophic in a detention facility,” said Marie DeLuca, an emergency physician in New York City and one of more than 3,000 medical professionals from across the country who have signed a letter urging ICE to release individuals and families from detention while their cases are processed.

“What we’re concerned about is, if people aren’t released from detention, that we would see people dying.”

The letter is signed by over 3,000 professionals from dozens of medical disciplines and written by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s (NYLPI) Medical-Legal-Community Partnership and Doctors for Camp Closure.

The group “strongly recommend[s] that ICE implement community-based alternatives to detention to alleviate the mass overcrowding in detention facilities.”

“Individuals and families, particularly the most vulnerable — the elderly, pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and those at higher risk of complications — should be released while their legal cases are being processed to avoid preventable deaths and mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak,” the letter reads.

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but released a public statement on Wednesday saying they will “temporarily adjust its enforcement posture” effective immediately and shift focus to public safety risks, those who are subject to detention on criminal grounds and those it deems “mission critical.”

Hudson County spokesman Jim Kennelly said there have been no discussions of moving these detainees out of the facility, though provided a number of details about the jail and what the plan is if a coronavirus outbreak occurs.

The Hudson County Correctional Center currently houses 667 regular inmates, while there are approximately 270 individuals detained by ICE, Kennelly said, 18 of whom are men over the age of 60. All of the ICE detainees are housed in a separate facility from the rest of the population.

Kennelly said the facility has a three-stage plan to deal with an outbreak: quarantine any detainee in a dedicated space, create a larger-scale quarantine in a dedicated space, and hospitalize the most serious cases in a building with a bed capacity of 2,000.

“We have significant housing space for quarantine units,” Kennelly said. “Currently we have 24 quarantine rooms set aside [and] we have hazmat suits stocked in ample supply.”

Nevertheless, some detainees inside the facility have raised concerns about substandard medical conditions.

“People incarcerated at the Hudson County Correctional Facility have raised numerous concerns about the lack of sanitizing materials … lack of medical attention, and other harrowing reports of mistreatment and neglect,” according to a separate letter released by The Bronx Defenders, a public defender non-profit.

“One person reported that he has not been given soap, hand sanitizer, or other cleaning materials,” the legal group said. “To use the phone, he covers it with a sock.”

Kennelly said the claims in the letter are false, exclaiming that the county “completely rejects this assessment,” and while he wouldn’t answer the letter point by point since the claims were made anonymously, he gave further details on how those in custody are treated.

“We treat those in our custody with appropriate care. Sanitizing materials are provided to each detainee upon arrival. Appropriate medical attention and care is provided by a national provider of these services which replaced the former provider, replaced nearly two years ago,” he explained.

“The county has spent in excess of $4 million on a newly-completed medical unit that is the best of its kind among county jails in New Jersey.”

Still, fears of the of the pandemic tearing through the nation’s jails, prisons, and detention facilities are present throughout this region.

Immigrants detained in the Essex County Correctional Facility organized a hunger strike on Thursday in response to growing concerns about a outbreak in the jail, while today, 57 ICE detainees in the Hudson County Correctional Center started a hunger strike, according to Make the Road New York, the Empire State’s largest immigration advocacy group.

Meanwhile, advocates for people held in New York City’s Riker’s Island facility say a massive infection could be inevitable.

Studies have shown that prison and jail populations are much more susceptible to spreads of disease and infections. Flu outbreaks are regular occurrences in jails and prisons.

From September of 2018 to August 2019, five cases of mumps ballooned to nearly 900 cases among staff and individuals detained in 57 facilities across 19 states, a number that represents about one third of the total cases in the entire US in that time frame.

Critics point to deaths reported in ICE detention centers over the last decade as evidence that the establishments that house these individuals are not properly equipped to protect them from an outbreak.

A ProPublia analysis that “reviewed more than 70 reports detailing the circumstances around detainee deaths over the last decade” found that ICE has repeatedly failed to follow rules meant to contain communicable diseases inside its detention centers — a “breeding ground for illness.”

While the general population has dramatically adjusted their daily lives in response to the pandemic, “people in immigration detention are in detention arbitrarily; they are being detained… while their immigration case proceeds, and that is optional — ICE can make the decision to release them, especially in the midst of a public health emergency,” said Chanelle Diaz, an internal medicine physician in the Bronx.

The problem is that while the detainees are confined to to the facility, “each day there’s a revolving door of others going in and out, and then they’re going home to their families,” said Marinda van Dalen, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

“ICE has the authority, the responsibility, and the opportunity right now to release people who are in immigration detention. This is their lives in the balance, this is a point in time where the decision to do is critical and this letter … is an effort to implore ICE to do what is needed most right now.”

Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_