Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a class action lawsuit Friday on behalf of all people detained by ICE in the Bristol County Correctional Center in Massachusetts. The complaint, which names Sheriff Thomas Hodgson and senior jail, ICE, and Department of Homeland Security officials as defendants, demands the immediate release of the plaintiffs because their detention during the coronavirus pandemic violates their constitutional rights. “Plaintiffs are subject to imminent infection, illness, and death because of their civil immigration detention,” the complaint reads, “literally trapped, with no safe alternative available to them.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleges that local and federal officials have made “flawed policies and decision-making surrounding COVID-19” and have failed to abide by the policies they set for themselves. According to the complaint, jail officials are detaining new people daily without any testing, screening, or quarantine period. The plaintiffs request a writ of habeas corpus and their immediate release.
Jonathan Darling, a spokesperson for the Bristol County sheriff’s office, said the allegations in the lawsuit are “completely false … it’s laughable how false these lies are.” However, he did confirm that someone was detained at the facility on Wednesday and transferred to its medical unit the next morning because he “wasn’t feeling well.” He had “no fever, no shortness of breath, and says he’s feeling better,” Darling said.
The other defendants named in the lawsuit did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
As cases of coronavirus continue to rise in Bristol County and around the country, lawyers and medical experts say that the only way to keep incarcerated people and their communities safe is by releasing them.
In the days leading up to the lawsuit, ICE detainees at the jail published multiple letters that described overcrowding, three-foot spacing between bunk beds, and two correctional officers they “observed to be symptomatic of the COVID-19 virus” in the jail. In two letters, the detainees described themselves as “extremely agitated and panicking.”
According to one letter, medical personnel told detainees that “the infection of the whole ICE facility population was inevitable and would occur within the next thirty days.” A correctional officer reportedly said that coronavirus was “no more than the flu.” In a second letter, people being detained listed their underlying health problems that make them especially vulnerable to coronavirus. Among the 57 detainees, 28 reported conditions including emphysema, leukemia, tuberculosis, a weak immune system, and limited lung function.
Plaintiffs are subject to imminent infection, illness, and death because of their civil immigration detention.
Lawyers for Civil Rights which filed a lawsuit on behalf of ICE detainees held at the Bristol County Correctional Center.
Darling told The Appeal that the comment from medical personnel quoted in the first letter “is a complete lie,” and that “no one ever told [the detainees] a coronavirus outbreak was ‘inevitable or would occur in thirty days.’” Darling also said, in reference to the proximity of the bunk beds, “Six feet apart is practically impossible in any correctional setting, in any jail, in any prison, in any state, in any county, anywhere.” On March 22, he disputed that anyone working at the jail was symptomatic of COVID-19: “No prisoner or correctional officer at our facility has symptoms of the coronavirus, and none of them have tested positive,” he told a local news outlet.
ICE has a well-documented record of withholding essential medical care from the people it detains. After a whistleblower from the agency released a memo last fall that outlined deaths resulting from “grossly negligent” medical treatment provided to people in detention, the House Oversight and Reform Committee launched an investigation into medical care for immigrant detainees. Ten people have died in ICE custody since October. On March 24, ICE announced that an individual held in its custody in Bergen County Jail in New Jersey had tested positive for coronavirus.
In a press release published on March 18, ICE said it would prioritize enforcement efforts for immigrants with criminal convictions and use discretion to delay enforcement against most other immigrants “as appropriate.”
Though the Bristol County Correctional Center must follow federal ICE guidelines, it is run by Sheriff Thomas Hodgson under an Intergovernmental Service Agreement, a federal contract that allows local jails to hold people detained on immigration charges. “The sheriffs, or the wardens, have responsibility over the conditions at the facilities that they are housing detainees in,” said Mario Paredes, a staff attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.
Conditions inside the facilities that Hodgson oversees have been under scrutiny for years: He has been sued for his solitary confinement practices and for false imprisonment. In 2018, ICE detainees organized a hunger strike to protest the lack of medical care and inadequate food inside the Bristol County detention center. (Hodgson, who offered people detained at his facility to help build President Trump’s border wall, is also serving as the president’s honorary re-election campaign chairperson in Massachusetts.)
Hodgson has remained firmly opposed to the calls by public and health officials to release people incarcerated in Massachusetts. “You know what’s not in the best interest of public safety?” he wrote in a statement. “Letting hundreds of people … ordered held behind bars by a judge, walk out the front door in the middle of a public health emergency.”
But medical experts who advise the Department of Homeland Security warn that incarceration itself poses a specific public health risk right now. On March 17, Scott Allen and Josiah Rich, medical subject matter experts for the DHS, warned in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that an outbreak inside a detention center or jail could create a crisis for the broader community. “Unless government officials act now, the novel coronavirus will spread rapidly in our jails and prisons, endangering not only prisoners and corrections workers but the general public as well,” they wrote. The doctors sent a letter two days later to members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, stating, “it is essential to consider releasing all detainees who do not pose an immediate risk to public safety.”
Speaking to The Appeal, Allen said a COVID-19 outbreak in jails and prisons would also put pressure on local healthcare systems, requiring more beds and supplies.
“If you talk about these congregate settings for high-risk individuals, you may have to send out very quickly—within a couple weeks—a large number of people to a local hospital, many of whom would require ICU care,” Allen warned. (As a whistleblower represented by the Government Accountability Project, Allen spoke with The Appeal as a medical expert in detention health, not on behalf of DHS.)
Continuing to detain people “doesn’t just threaten the people you’re holding,” Allen said, “it threatens the staff of the facility, their families, their communities, and ultimately risks the lives of not only the people tied to the facility, but the people in the community where the facilities are located.” He warned: “People need to recognize that and act quickly.”