A federal judge is expected to decide Friday whether to begin releasing more than 100 civil immigration detainees in Bristol County, who lawyers say are at “imminent risk” of contacting COVID-19 because of unsafe and overcrowded conditions at the jail.
In an hourlong teleconference, US District Judge William G. Young said he was inclined to start freeing some detainees because medical evidence suggests that reducing the population would “improve the chances” that others at the jail would not contract the virus.
“I don’t think there’s any medical evidence that cuts the other way,” said Young, who divided the 147 detainees at the Bristol County House of Correction and the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center into five levels of risk, ranging from those who have no criminal record or charges to those convicted of serious crimes.
Young suggested that detainees in the three lowest risk categories are the most likely to be eligible for release.
A nurse at the facility has tested positive for coronavirus, but Thomas Kanwit, an assistant US attorney who represents Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, said there’s no evidence the virus is present among the detainees, or will appear anytime soon. He said the nurse had only limited contact with detainees.
“I don’t agree it’s an absolute necessity that the virus will eventually be in the population and at that point it will be too late,” Kanwit said. “If the courts are convinced that the only solution that makes sense is some measure of reduction of the population, then I’m fighting an uphill battle.”
"I’m operating on the premise that the fewer the people in the facility, the more likely the people there will remain safe,” Young said.
Oren Sellstrom, arguing for the detainees, urged Young to move quickly to release as many of them as possible.
“The situation is escalating rapidly and has been since the start of this pandemic,” Sellstrom said.
Young, who urged the sides to try to negotiate an agreement, said anyone released would have to be symptom-free and be taken to a home or an apartment, where they would remain quarantined for 14 days, under house arrest
Lawyers for Civil Rights filed the class-action lawsuit against Customs and Immigration Enforcement and Hodgson, whose department houses ICE detainees under contract with the federal government.
The lawyers said they are representing a group of 147 people. At least 111 of the immigrants have never been convicted of a violent crime, and at least 56 have never been convicted of anything at all. Of the 31 people with final orders of removal, only three have scheduled removal dates, the lawyers said.
The lawyers also said that scores of the detainees have serious medical issues, including heart conditions, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, and lung and respiratory conditions.
In a telephone interview, Hodgson said that a nurse who spent two hours of her overnight shift at the ICE detainee facility on March 24 and into March 25 tested positive for COVID-19 Wednesday. He said she saw two detainees around 4 a.m., giving two insulin shots and taking the temperature of a third at her office in the ICE detainee building.
“Since that time, we have no issue. Nobody has symptoms. None of that,’’ he said. “Knock on wood. I’m happy about that.”
Hodgson said he is adamantly opposed to releasing detainees on the issues being raised by the lawyers.
He said ICE detainees are in a safer place, medically speaking, than they would be if released, especially since some may not have a home and all of them would be released into a state where the impact of the coronavirus is increasingly being felt in the number of infections and deaths.
“We have medical staff that are here, who pay close attention around the clock to all of the detainees,’’ he said. “People get seen here much faster than they would on the outside . . . You probably have more of an [infection] risk in grocery stores than you do in the prisons."
Hodgson said the court fight is just another chapter in lawyers’ long-running effort to end detention for alleged violations of federal immigration law. Given the health risk that they could face upon release, Hodgson said the lawyers are not putting the interests of the detainees first.
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