COVID-19 Could Be “Death Sentence,” Attorneys Say
April 14, 2020, New Orleans, Louisiana – Today, 16 medically vulnerable people currently held in six Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities in Louisiana filed an emergency petition for release, citing their severe risk of contracting coronavirus and developing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms. They were part of a petition filed last week on behalf of people in ICE detention in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana that was dismissed for technical jurisdictional grounds and are now pressing their case in federal court in Louisiana. They are represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG).
The six facilities—LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Richwood County Correctional Center in Richwood, Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Pine Prairie Processing Center in Pine Prairie, Catahoula Correctional Center in Harrisonburg, and Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Jonesboro—are notoriously overcrowded and unhealthy and do not have 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.
“We are washing our hands with shampoo because that is all that we have. The facility’s response to the coronavirus is to put signs up that tell us to wash our hands. They also told us that if we are immunocompromised to ‘be careful,’ [but] that does us no good,” said Rolando Alex Colon, who is detained at Catahoula Correctional Center. “I do understand what social distancing is, however there is no space to do so in Catahoula. There are about 100 people in one large room.”
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 provided those detained with little information about coronavirus, including guidelines for preventing it—in fact, on more than one occasion, guards are reported to have said there was no coronavirus in Louisiana or the detention facilities and that what they were seeing on television was lies. The people being detained further report 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 of the people being detained do not have access to soap. Since earlier reporting that Louisiana had the highest rate of new infections in the country, cases have continued to rise. Cases of COVID-19 are already confirmed within the Richwood, Winn, and Pine Prairie facilities. Public health experts say widespread outbreaks are inevitable, and advocates call the detention centers “ticking timebombs.”
“ICE’s needless detention of people going through the immigration system has always been cruel and inhumane, 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. “It shouldn’t take an emergency lawsuit to obtain the release of medically vulnerable individuals whose lives and safety are being threatened by this pandemic. Their situation shines a light on ICE’s bloated mass incarceration of immigrants—a system that should end, regardless of the current health crisis we are facing.”
The detained plaintiffs include two hunger striking individuals 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.
Other plaintiffs report high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, previous heart attacks and strokes and ongoing chest pains, asthma and other breathing difficulties—as well as recent coughs and fevers that they or their fellow prisoners have had. Several of the petitioners are elderly. One is so immunocompromised doctors stated they were surprised she was still alive, irrespective of the threat of COVID-19. Attorneys say coronavirus has exacerbated already dire conditions in ICE facilities.
“While this suit seeks to protect these individuals from lethal harm, it is also part of a broader effort to expose the horrid conditions in ICE detention facilities and the vast, illegitimate detention system and the cruel and arbitrary punitive reflex that pervades in this country,” said Baher Azmy, Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
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.
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 the Western District of Louisiana on behalf of 16 people: Talatu Helen Dada, Matilde Flores de Saavedra, Sirous Asgari, Eduardo Devora Espinosa, Rosabel Carrera, Sonia Lemus Tejada Dejaso, Griselda Del Bosque, Nadira Sampath Grant, Suresh Kumar, Pardeep Kumar, Abraham Gebremedhin Gebremichael, Rolando Alex Colon, Aracelio Rodriguez, Desmond Nkobenei, Hasan Saleh, Karthikeyan Ponnusamy. Some of their profiles are available on a resource page on the Center for Constitutional Rights website.
For more information and to read today’s filings, 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.