CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — The Wyatt Detention Facility has released 25 immigration detainees since the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class-action lawsuit last month claiming it wasn’t safe to keep them there amid the coronavirus outbreak.
U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy ordered 16 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees released on bail, and Wyatt ended up releasing another nine detainees without a hearing after the legal action began, ACLU attorneys announced Tuesday.
The judge denied bail to 23 immigration detainees at Wyatt, and another 10 detainees have been deported, according to Susan Baker Manning, a lawyer representing the ACLU from the Morgan, Lewis & Bockius law firm.
She said one more bail hearing remains to be held on Friday. So the legal action, which began in May, has nearly concluded.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the stakes in this case involved life and death,” ACLU cooperating attorney Jared A. Goldstein said. “I’m proud to see that our Constitution worked to protect the health and lives of those who have been released.”
When the lawsuit started, the ACLU was seeking the conditional release of 70 ICE detainees at Wyatt. As of Tuesday, the Central Falls facility contained just 21 ICE detainees.
Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasi-public corporation, had no comment on the outcome of the ACLU lawsuit, spokesman Christopher D. Hunter said.
Goldstein said the US Constitution prohibits the government from imprisoning people under conditions that unreasonably threaten their lives, and he said, “It was obvious that continued detention of immigrant detainees at the Wyatt violates their constitutional rights.”
He said he regrets that any immigrants remain at Wyatt, but, he said, “I’m hopeful that the reduced population may make social distancing more possible.”
The lawsuit described Wyatt as a COVID-19 hot spot within a hot spot — with 57 detainees and 17 staff members testing positive, while the surrounding city of Central Falls has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 infections.
In bail hearings, the judge determined that the coronavirus placed all the Wyatt detainees at risk, but she denied bail to some when she concluded that releasing them would pose a risk to public safety or that they would pose a flight risk.
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said the lawsuit succeeded in getting people with serious medical conditions out of a facility where they faced a real risk of contracting the coronavirus.
“We have managed to get more than two dozen detainees out of the facility and out of danger,” he said. “The most striking figure is that this lawsuit was successful in getting more immigration detainees out of the facility than are currently locked up there now.”
Brown said many of the released detainees are staying with family members, while a few are being housed by Open Doors, a nonprofit that provides housing for newly released inmates. Although released, the detainees will be monitored and must return for hearings for deportation or other legal matters.