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CRIMINAL JUSTICE

With virus spreading, judge orders temporary release of two ICE detainees at Wyatt Detention Facility

U.S. District Court judge refuses to release third during hearings Wednesday

The Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I.
The Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — A federal judge on Wednesday began ordering the temporary release of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees because of the threat posed by the coronavirus at the Wyatt Detention Facility.

“The conditions at Wyatt, combined with the fact that COVID-19 is present in the institution, constitute emergency circumstances for every detainee housed there,” U.S. District Judge Mary S. McElroy wrote in a 15-page order setting up a series of bail hearings.

The order comes in response to a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed seeking the “conditional release” of immigration detainees at Wyatt. The suit described Wyatt as a COVID-19 hot spot within a hot spot — with 48 detainees and 15 staff members testing positive while the surrounding city of Central Falls has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19.

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McElroy planned to holding hearings for five detainees on Wednesday, but ICE released two of them ahead of time, ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Jared A. Goldstein said. In all, ICE has released six immigration detainees since the case was filed, and it has deported 16 others, he said.

So McElroy ended up holding three bailing hearings on Wednesday, agreeing to release two detainees while refusing to release a third who faced domestic abuse charges. Although released, the detainees will be monitored and must return for hearings for deportation or other legal matters.

In hearing the requests, McElroy noted that she had already determined the coronavirus places all the Wyatt detainees at risk, and she asked government lawyers to show why conditionally releasing detainees would pose a risk to public safety or if they would pose a flight risk.

As of Wednesday morning, Wyatt contained 55 ICE detainees, a spokesman said. And the lawsuit is seeking the release of all of them.

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“It’s great that people who are endangered are being released,” Goldstein said. “But it shows that ICE and the Wyatt had no process for identifying medically vulnerable detainees. Only under the threat of the lawsuit and the judge’s order are they scrambling to figure out who should be released.”

He argued that Wyatt should have been taking these steps two months ago, saying, “COVID is not a new thing on June 3.”

Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasi-public corporation, had no comment on the court order, spokesman Christopher D. Hunter said Wednesday.

But in a statement provided to the court, Wyatt detailed the steps it has taken to stop the virus’ spread. For example, Wyatt said it was conducting screenings of all detainees for virus-related symptoms, “including COVID-19 testing and a 16-day quarantine for all new detainees.” And it said it was creating a quarantine unit and converting 160 cells into negative pressure environments.

In her 15-page order, McElroy acknowledged that Wyatt, like other detention centers, has made changes and instituted new procedures to address the threat posed by the coronavirus. But she said the number of cases continues to rise, and the conditions -- with 5-foot-by-9-foot cells -- makes social distancing impossible.

Also, the judge noted that Wyatt is in Central Falls, a 1.29-square-mile city that, as of May 31, had 806 confirmed COVID-19 cases, representing an infection rate of 3,980 per 100,000 residents -- the highest in the state.

Despite those realities inside and outside the walls of Wyatt, “the government has not undertaken any real effort to ascertain the underlying medical conditions of the detainees in this case,” McElroy said.

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So, McElroy concluded, the conditions at Wyatt “present a case for a substantial claim of constitutional error and present facts which may lead the court to conclude that their continued detention under these circumstances presents a substantial risk of serious harm or death.”

She ordered the ACLU to start presenting lists of detainees seeking bail hearings. She said she hopes to hold five hearings a day until the lists are exhausted.

Where would the detainees go if they get released?

Goldstein said the first choice is that detainees would stay with family members, but some might be housed by nonprofits that serve newly released inmates. Detainees would be required to remain in quarantine for 14 days after their release, and possibly be monitored with GPS tracking, he said.

In Wednesday’s first bail hearing, ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Deborah S. Gonzalez argued for the conditional release of Gagik Mkrtchian, a 40-year-old Armenian immigrant who arrived in the United States at age 12.

Mkrtchian is a “lawful permanent resident,” or green card holder, who faces deportation for drug convictions, Gonzalez said. He got addicted after being prescribed opioid pain medication for kidney stone surgery, and that led to his criminal convictions, she said.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary A. Cunha argued that Mkrtchian should remain in detention. He questioned if Mkrtchian is in a high-risk medical category and said his criminal history includes “serious offenses,” including a heroin trafficking charge.

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Gonzalez said Mkrtchian served his time for the nonviolent criminal charges, and “he has done all he could to rehabilitate himself.” She said he would stay with a cousin in Cranston if he is released.

McElroy agreed to release Mkrtchian, reminding him that he was not being released permanently and must return for deportation hearings. She told him to remain quarantined to 14 days and said he would face some form of ICE monitoring.

“Good luck to you,” she said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com