As advocates continue to warn that overcrowded prisons and detention centers nationwide aren’t prepared to handle an outbreak of COVID-19, among the people affected by such conditions are those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
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Many are awaiting hearings or deportation.
One Connecticut resident who’s being held by ICE in an Alabama county jail said there’s no way to practice social distancing.
Richard Marvin Thompson has been held in immigration detention for the majority of the past seven years. He told Connecticut Public Radio that right now, he’s scared.
“What if I get sick? What if I get sick and catch the virus?” he said.
Thompson was brought to Connecticut from Jamaica by his father, a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was 14 at the time and lived legally in Bridgeport as a permanent resident. When he was 18, he got into a fight and was convicted of second-degree assault. Eleven years later, ICE decided to deport Thompson, arguing that he forfeited his legal status based on the crime he committed as a teenager.
Thompson spoke to Connecticut Public Radio recently from inside the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, where he’s in a special unit for ICE detainees. He shares his cell with another detainee and said crowded hallways and gathering places make it impossible to stay 6 feet from the next inmate.
“It's hard ... how can you? How?” he said. “The unit itself is like a big quarantine area. You know, you get up every day, I’m rubbing elbows with a detainee. Every day I’ll have somebody in my cell. You know what I’m saying? It’s difficult to practice social distance in here.”
A video created by detainees inside the Etowah County jail was recently posted online. The detainees plead for help and say some are sick. The video drew national and international media attention and a stern response from Alabama law enforcement. There was a lockdown and cell searches.
Etowah County Sheriff Jonathon Horton called the video a hoax, and on March 26, he posted a response on Facebook.
“We currently are housing a little over 600 inmates, which is a low number for us,” he said. “And we’d like everyone to know that regardless of rumor or things that went out into the community, we have zero cases at this point that we’re thankful for within our facility. Not even any employees with symptoms.”
The detainees began a hunger strike, and Thompson said authorities eventually moved the allegedly sick people off the unit.
But Etowah is just one of hundreds of places around the country where ICE has immigrants in detention. In an email to Connecticut Public Radio, Bryan D. Cox, ICE’s Southern Region public affairs director, said the agency is taking extensive precautions nationwide to limit the potential spread of COVID-19 in its facilities.
Last week, Yale Law School’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic filed a class-action lawsuit calling for the release of all immigrants in an ICE detention facility in Massachusetts. The suit says detainees risk contracting a virus that feeds on precisely the unsafe, packed conditions in which immigrants are being held.
“The Bristol County House of Corrections is notoriously overcrowded and has very poor sanitation, lacking basic needs such as soap, shampoo and functioning toilets and toilet paper,” said Aseem Mehta, a law student intern working on that case.
Thompson said Etowah County has similar problems.
“The other day, we just didn’t have soap to wash our clothes. We didn’t have soap to do the laundry,” he said. “Now, that’s crazy.”
ICE has stated that for now, the agency will pick up and detain only people who have a criminal record or who are suspected of a crime.
But in Thompson’s case, there are no criminal grounds. Thompson was granted a full and absolute pardon by the state of Connecticut in 2017. His record is cleared, something the Department of Homeland Security has so far not recognized.
Judges, prosecutors and correctional authorities across the country are beginning to recognize the urgency of the pandemic. Thousands of people have been released from detention centers, jails and prisons in Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York, Cleveland, Nashville and Houston.
The idea is to not only protect those at risk of contracting COVID-19 behind bars, but also protect public health.