Prisoners, Some Near-Death, File Urgent Petition for Release from “Ticking Timebomb” Detention Centers
April 1, 2020, New Orleans – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIP-NLG) sued for the release of 17 medically vulnerable people currently held in five immigration detention centers, citing the severe risk of their contracting coronavirus and developing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms. The five Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers—in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—are notoriously overcrowded, unhealthy, and lack adequate medical facilities or expertise. The complaint and accompanying emergency motion for release filed today warn that the near-certainty of coronavirus outbreaks in these already unsafe facilities renders the continued detention of these individuals a potential death sentence for a civil immigration violation.
“I am scared that I will die in this detention center from coronavirus,” Diego Carrillo Och, a 65-year-old Guatemalan native detained in Richwood, Louisiana, said in a declaration. “Medical care here is terrible. When one of us has a headache or fever, the medical staff doesn’t provide us with medicine. They just ignore [us]. That’s my concern, that if I fall ill they won’t do anything.”
According to expert declarations filed by Tulane University and Yale public health experts, it is impossible for the detention facilities to comply with CDC guidelines around social distancing, quarantine, and treatment, and the facilities’ already-inadequate medical facilities will inevitably be overwhelmed. The plaintiffs themselves report that the detention facilities have not provided those detained with any information about coronavirus, including guidelines for preventing it; that they are housed in open dorms with dozens sharing bunk beds only a few feet apart, with only a handful of toilets, showers, and phones; and that staff do not wear masks or gloves. Some do not have access to soap. In recent days, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Louisiana has skyrocketed and the rate of new infections there has emerged as the highest in the nation. Given the alarming increase in new cases there and around the country, attorneys say it is reasonable to suspect that prisoners in these facilities have already been exposed and widespread outbreaks are inevitable. Advocates called the detention centers “ticking timebombs.”
“ICE’s needless detention of people in the immigration system has always been excessive, but in the current circumstances, it is also recklessly endangering lives,” said Sirine Shebaya, Executive Director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “ICE is fully aware of the risks involved in detaining people—especially those who are medically vulnerable or who are housed in facilities that have long histories of poor conditions. Their continued detention shines a clear light on the bloated system of mass incarceration that our immigration authorities are continuing to hold onto, even in the face of a public health emergency. It shouldn’t take an emergency lawsuit to obtain their release.”
The 17 detained plaintiffs include two hunger strikers already protesting their detentions and conditions of confinement whose bodies have begun to break down due to their protests. They report extreme weight loss, kidney and liver disease, loss of vision, weakness to the point of requiring a wheelchair, dangerously low blood pressure, and risk of organ failure. Fifteen other detained individuals who are not hunger striking also report serious health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and otherwise severely compromised immune systems. Attorneys say coronavirus has exacerbated already dire conditions in ICE facilities.
“People should not face the risk of death for an alleged civil immigration violation,” said Baher Azmy, Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “While these 17 individuals are particularly medically vulnerable, everyone in the crowded, degrading, and unhealthy conditions that plague ICE detention facilities, are at risk and should be released to their loved ones. We hope this can be one step toward ending the cruelty and senselessness of mass ICE detention operations and this country’s reflexive impulse to imprison its way out of every imagined problem.”
The complaint filed today argues that the risk of death for a civil immigration violation—due to grossly inadequate sanitation and healthcare, along with the impossibility of following CDC guidelines in such over-crowded conditions—violates constitutional protections ensuring adequate care and preventing deliberate indifference to obvious medical risks. It also argues that the prisoners are being denied their constitutional right to counsel, as visits are banned and the facilities lack practical means of placing confidential calls to lawyers.
Still, the people being detained are determined to fight. Said the lead plaintiff, Talatu Helen Dada, a Nigerian native and former nursing student who suffers from a compromised immune system, "I came here alive. I plan to leave alive."
Co-counsel in the case are Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Jeremy Jong in New Orleans, and R. Andrew Free in Nashville, Tennessee.
The case is Dada v. Witte and was filed in federal court in New Orleans.
For more information and to read today’s filigs, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG) is a national non-profit organization that provides technical assistance and support to community-based immigrant organizations, legal practitioners, and all advocates seeking and working to advance the rights of noncitizens. NIPNLG utilizes impact litigation, advocacy, and public education to pursue its mission. Learn more at nipnlg.org. Follow NIPNLG on social media: National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild on Facebook, @NIPNLG on Twitter.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.