Coronavirus pandemic: U.S. doctors demand immediate release of prisoners and detainees

women prisoners

Doctors and medical workers across the U.S. raise the alarm about the coronavirus’s risk to prison populations. Thousands of medics have signed an open letter calling upon the immigration authorities to release individuals and families from detention.

The letter, which at the time of writing had been signed by more than 3,000 people, is addressed to the director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The medics implore the ICE “to release individuals and families from immigration detention while their legal cases are being processed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate the harm of an outbreak.”

“Detention facilities,” they point out, “are designed to maximize control of the incarcerated population, not to minimize disease transmission or to efficiently deliver health care.

“We strongly recommend that ICE implement community-based alternatives to detention to alleviate the mass overcrowding in detention facilities. Individuals and families, particularly the most vulnerable – the elderly, pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and those at higher risk of complications – should be released while their legal cases are being processed to avoid preventable deaths and mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak.”

ICE’s detention centers have been roundly criticized not just for who they detain, but for their conditions, which are often harsh and overcrowded.

And with a huge backlog of immigration cases waiting to be heard, keeping so many people in detention while they await hearings will only mean the overcrowding gets worse.

A similar call to release those at risk has come from the chief physician of Rikers Island, the principal prison in New York City, who has called on New York’s judges and prosecutors to release inmates where possible in the name of protecting them from the virus.

The physician writes, “The luxury that allows you to protect yourselves, carries with it an obligation to those you detain.”

“We cannot change the fundamental nature of jail,” he writes. “We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.

“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

New York would not be the first major U.S. city to take steps like these.

Los Angeles has released some 600 people serving time for minor and non-violent offences, and has also instructed police officers to avoid arresting people unless absolutely necessary and issue citations instead. The number of arrests has duly plummeted.

ICE: No Plan to Free Migrants in Jail, but Will Arrest Fewer Due to Pandemic

ICE has pledged to limit its roundups of undocumented immigrants to those deemed a public-safety threat during the coronavirus outbreak.

But thousands of people in its jails who aren’t deemed a public-safety risk will stay locked up, the immigration agency indicated to The Daily Beast.

Migrants inside ICE jails and their advocates outside are warning that conditions within the tightly packed lockups represent a coronavirus tinderbox.

Late Tuesday afternoon, ICE announced a dramatic change to its enforcement rules. During the public-health emergency, the controversial law-enforcement agency will return to its pre-Trump administration prioritization of “public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.” ICE agents will delay arresting people who do not fall into those categories “or utilize alternatives to detention, as appropriate.”

And, after an image of ICE escorting a convicted man to a hospital went viral, ICE reiterated a longstanding policy that it will not arrest people “at or near health care facilities” so as not to discourage people from seeking medical care.

ICE officials say the situation is fluid, and that it frequently reviews its custody decisions, which can lead to release. That is one of the reasons why the number of people in ICE custody fluctuates (deportation being another).

But for now, “there has been no announcement related to releasing individuals that are currently detained,” an ICE official clarified.

Immigration advocates warned that not releasing any detainees poses its own public-health risk.

“Public-health experts nationally have made clear that the most effective step ICE could take to protect the public health and safety of all our communities would be to release as many people as possible from immigration detention and allow them to be with their families and the safety of their homes. ICE has the legal and moral authority to take this step immediately,” said Heidi Altman, the policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center.

Two detainees in a Karnes County, Texas ICE jail that holds approximately 700 people warn that conditions inside risk an outbreak.

“Most of the people here are women and children, many of whom are already sick or not eating well. We are all worried that if the virus reaches this detention center, many people could die,” according to a Haitian man in custody with his family, in a statement made through an interpreter. Doctors inside the Geo Group-run facility “are already not able to protect us.”

A 40-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of Congo held in the same jail said the detainees do not have access to masks or hand sanitizer and are held in close quarters, making it impossible to practice the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended social distancing.

“The officials here have not said anything to us about what is happening outside, or any extra precautions that we should take. We are scared because nobody will tell us anything, and we fear that nobody will take care of us,” the man said.

Both declarations, which blacked out the names of both men, were released on Tuesday by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). The same day, RAICES announced the suicide of a man inside the Karnes County facility, the ninth person to have died in immigration custody since October, according to BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz.

“ICE detention kills. We have known this for years, and we know that more people will die if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs,” said RAICES’ director of family-detention services, Andrea Meza. “ICE prisons are rural and isolated, and an outbreak will put a huge strain on local communities. While the country participates in social distancing, people in ICE detention are begging all of us for help as they are forced to live in cramped quarters with hundreds of other people and prison workers.”

Meza said that inside the jails, guards can use hand sanitizer that is not available to detainees.

Altman, of the National Immigrant Justice Center, pointed out that ICE’s detention statistics ahead of Tuesday’s policy change showed no appreciable slowdown in arrests during the COVID-19 outbreak. ICE had 38,664 people in custody on February 22 and 37,888 on March 7. As well, current ICE statistics show it has 5,687 asylum seekers in custody for whom the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services determined have established persecution or torture claims justifying entry.

“ICE should be engaging in a file review of every single person in custody and releasing as many people as possible and as urgently as possible, in furtherance of the entire nation’s health and safety,” Altman said. “Their own statistics show there are nearly 6000 asylum seekers in jail who have passed their threshold interviews to establish asylum eligibility. Per ICE’s own directives should be released immediately.”

U.S. jails begin releasing prisoners to stem Covid-19 infections

A BBC report said:

U.S. jails are to let out inmates as cases of coronavirus infections are being reported in prisons.

New York City is releasing “vulnerable” prisoners, the mayor said on Wednesday, days after Los Angeles and Cleveland freed hundreds of inmates.

Prison reform advocates say those in jail are at higher risk of catching and passing on Covid-19.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday that city officials will this week identify individuals for release, including people who were arrested for minor crimes and those most vulnerable to infection due to underlying health problems.

His announcement came hours after a guard and a prisoner tested positive for coronavirus at Rikers Island prison, where disgraced former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, 68, is a high-profile inmate.

Weinstein will be moved to a different state prison, an official said on Wednesday.

Other New York prisons, such as Sing Sing, have had inmates test positive for coronavirus and one employee for the state’s corrections department has died from it.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reduced it’s inmate population by 600 in the last two weeks, officials said on Tuesday.

The LA County jail system is the largest prison system in the world with an average population of around 22,000 prisoners.

Villaneuva disclosed that arrests in the county are also down, from an average of 300 per weekend to only 60 in mid-March.

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where the city of Cleveland is located, has also released hundreds of prisoners due to coronavirus concerns.

Judges held emergency hearings through the weekend to work out plea deals and other agreements to allow prisoners to be released early or without serving time.

Several states from New York to California are now banning in-person visitors. A ban on visits led to a deadly prison riot in Italy last week.

Federal agencies will postpone most arrests and deportations during the coronavirus crisis.

Danger to prisoners

Reform campaigners say prisoners face unique risks, due to a lack of hygiene in overcrowded cells and hallways.

Handcuffed people cannot cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, sinks often lack soap and hand sanitizer is considered contraband due to its alcohol content.

Iran has already released 85,000 people, including political prisoners, in an effort to combat the pandemic.

The U.S. locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other country, with an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars in federal, state and local prisons.

Some high profile convicts have argued for early release over coronavirus fears.

They include President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, 53, financial fraudster Bernie Madoff, 81, and Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, a notorious Colombian drug lord.

Migrants fear getting stuck in Mexico as Trump hints at border restrictions

A Nogales, Sonora datelined report by Rafael Carranza in Arizona Republic said:

Migrants and advocates in Mexican border cities criticized U.S. President Trump over his intention to turn away certain migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of containment efforts against the new coronavirus.

Trump said Wednesday there are no plans to shut down the southern border, but he signaled that other restrictions on migrants and asylum seekers could come any time. “We are invoking a certain provision that will allow us great latitude as to what we do,” Trump said.

That provision in a law allows the U.S. surgeon general, with Trump’s approval, to temporarily ban the entry of certain individuals, such as migrants, to avoid the spread of certain communicable diseases, such as COVID-19.

To date, Trump has not announced any restrictions along the U.S.-Mexico border.

However, the threat of shutting down access to the U.S. asylum process for thousands of migrants already waiting in Mexico stoked anxiety in border communities such as Nogales, Sonora, on Arizona’s border with Mexico.

Hundreds of families are waiting in line for up to four months to present their claims before U.S. asylum officials in Nogales, Arizona.

There are dozens more migrants who the U.S. government sent to Nogales under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico,” since the program began here at the start of the year.

Migrants waiting for the chance to pursue asylum claims expressed concern about the prospect of getting stuck in Mexico, without access to the U.S. asylum process, for an undetermined amount of time as COVID-19 spreads.

“Even if we decided to go back, because there’s no lack of desire to do so, we can’t because the borders are closed,” said Maria Antonia Castillo, a Honduran migrant, sent to Nogales under MPP.

Castillo has been waiting in Nogales for nearly two months. She and her teenage daughter are sharing an apartment with two other mothers and their children, including an 8-month-old boy, which is forcing them to take COVID-19 seriously.

All six have their court hearing on April 13 in El Paso, Texas, more than 300 miles away. They had planned to go to Juarez the week before their hearing. But the coronavirus situation might disrupt those plans.

So far, the Trump administration has continued holding court hearings under the Migrant Protection Protocols, even though the Justice Department has postponed other immigration proceedings around the country.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was implementing some changes in its enforcement actions at the border.

“As our partner agencies take steps to protect their workforce from COVID-19 exposure, CBP is adjusting prosecution referrals to prioritize the most serious criminal offenses based on our partners’ capacity,” the agency said in a written statement.

Organizations such as the Kino Border Initiative, which feeds and provides other services to migrants in Nogales, criticized the Trump administration’s plans to further restrict asylum access over COVID-19.

“Now, not even the experts know what to tell us about what it’s going to look like. So it’s creating a lot of anxiety for people who are already in really uncertain conditions,” Horan said.

On Wednesday morning, the Kino Border Initiative transitioned the operation of its soup kitchen from an aging, cramped building to its expansive, new Migrant Aid Center.

Instead of using the large hall inside the center, as originally intended, the group opted to convert a covered patio into a makeshift serving and dining area.

Horan said they decided to use an outdoor setting as a precaution against COVID-19, because there is better ventilation in the patio than in the indoor hall.

Several migrants wore facemasks as they waited to be served. They removed the masks to eat, but immediately put the masks back on.

Dozens more migrants waited outside for their turn as others finished eating inside the dining area. Horan said the group is looking to open as soon as possible a new shelter space in the aid center that can house 139 migrants. They did not have a timeline yet.

An 81-year-old woman is fighting for detained migrants

A report by Britni de la Cretaz in Refinery29 said on March 19, 2020:

Fran Schindler is 81 years old. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based immigration activist is now stuck in Brownsville, Texas, though all the other volunteers with her group have left. At her age, and with the coronavirus pandemic raging, it’s safer for her to remain in the border town than to navigate any air travel.

But right now, she has bigger concerns than her own health or getting back to North Carolina. She was in Brownsville, Texas for the March 13th asylum hearing of two brothers, Enrique, 23, and Melvin, 21, who she befriended while volunteering in the border camp in Matamores, Mexico, which abuts Brownsville. The brothers fled Guatemala, where Melvin says he was shot six times after refusing to join a local gang. Their asylum was denied — despite Schindler being present in the tented courtroom and offering to sponsor the men — and they are planning to appeal.

But before their appeal could get underway, coronavirus panic hit North America. Schindler is sure that if their appeal is denied and they are sent back home, they will be killed — if COVID-19 does not kill in the camp first.

She’s not the only person concerned about conditions in the camp. Matamores is unique from other border towns in that most of the approximately 2,000 asylum seekers there are congregated on a muddy stretch of land approximately two football fields long. Migrants in the camp are part of the United States’ Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as Remain in Mexico, where asylum seekers await their court hearings in one of seven Mexican border towns.

“Our population in the asylum camps are incredibly vulnerable,” says Andrea Lanier, a nurse practitioner working in emergency medicine and Director of Strategic Planning for Global Response Management, the nonprofit that operates the only health clinic in the camp. “Quarantine is not possible. Containment is not possible. They are living in tents, squished together.”

On Tuesday, the White House submitted an emergency funding request, which includes $567 million to fund up to nine “migrant quarantine facilities along the Southwest border, including repurposed soft-sided facilities originally used for the migrant surge in 2019.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “are blatantly ignoring CDC guidelines — when the experts are advising against gatherings of more than 10 people, they’re trying to crowd more immigrants together in deadly conditions,” says Alyssa Rubin, campaign director for Never Action Again, a Jewish-led immigrant rights organization. ICE raids are continuing to happen in sanctuary cities like Los Angeles, despite the threat to public health that may ensue.

Global Response Management, a women- and veteran-led organization, says they are putting prevention measures in place to the best of their ability, and they are preparing to operate a field hospital to treat moderately to severely ill people.

Dairon Rojas, GRM’s lead physician and a Cuban asylum seeker himself, has been providing daily education to the residents of the Matamores camp about how to take precautions and what to do if someone in their community gets sick.

“This is not migrant protection, they just want to call it that,” says Schindler, the activist from North Carolina. “This is migrant send-them-back-and-get-them-murdered. It is inhumane, it is unjust, it is cruelty.”

Although Rojas and the GRM team are committed to doing everything possible to prevent widespread illness, the best that the can do will be in a tent, with no electricity or water supply and no ventilators, and will have 20 beds.

Other immigrant rights groups are also sounding the alarm, using the hashtag #FreeThemAll to advocate that detained migrants be released. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES Texas) has written a letter to Daniel Bible, field office director of ERO San Antonio, demanding that he “use his powers to release immigrants in detention who are at great risk during normal times, let-alone during a pandemic.”

“All those who have been subject to the Trump administration’s roster of anti-immigrant policies are in a vulnerable position; from those in detention to those living under MPP,” reads RAICES’ statement. “Immigration detention conditions are already poor, so a coronavirus outbreak could be a disaster.”

Similarly, Never Again Action is hosting mass calls to create a rapid response network to “stop these [concentration camps] from becoming death camps.” “These are the conditions that killed Anne Frank,” says Rubin. “Anne Frank didn’t die in a gas chamber — she died of typhus, an infectious disease. Crowded and unsanitary conditions always lead to mass deaths during an outbreak.”

Schindler says she will remain in Brownsville for the time being, and she stays in touch with Enrique and Melvin via What’s App messages. She, too, sees the comparisons to the Holocaust, and she refuses to look away. “The tagline here is ‘somebody named Schindler did this for the Jews a long time ago in Nazi Germany and now there is a woman named Schindler who is trying to do the same thing [for migrants] here.”



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