Federal judge orders release of 22 more ICE detainees, 13 in York County Prison

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Prison Monday, Jun3 10, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered the immediate release of 22 more immigrants being held in federal detention at York County Prison and Pike County Correctional Facility.

Thirteen are detained in York County Prison, and nine in Pike County's prison, according to ACLU of Pennsylvania spokesman Andy Hoover. All are in civil detention, as opposed to criminal detention, federal court records state.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III granted the ACLU's request to issue a temporary restraining order and specified in his 15-page memorandum that all 22 be released immediately, meaning Tuesday, on their own recognizance.

"We cannot allow the Petitioners before us, all at heightened risk for severe complications from COVID-19, to bear the consequences of ICE's inaction," Jones wrote. "We have before us clear evidence that the protective measures in place in the York and Pike County prisons are not working. We can only expect the number of positive COVID-19 cases to increase in the coming days and weeks, and we cannot leave the most fragile among us to face that growing danger unprotected."

The judge also ordered that the detainees self-quarantine in their homes for 14 days after their release. All were being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement  as they awaited the resolution of their immigration cases.

On March 31, Jones granted a previous request by the state's American Civil Liberties Union to release 10 immigrants being held at prisons in York, Pike and Clinton counties. He noted they face "imminent, irreparable harm," including death, if they contract the virus. All 10 are either older or have serious medical conditions, and four had been held in York County Prison.

Medical issues: All of the 22 detainees ordered released Tuesday suffer from serious medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to contracting — and possibly dying from — COVID-19, the state ACLU has argued.

Their conditions include hepatitis C, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, seizures, traumatic brain injury and emphysema, according to the ACLU.

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Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, wrote in an email: "Today's ruling underscores the very real public health crisis that is occurring and will continue to occur in jails and prisons if corrections officials do not respond appropriately."

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In his Tuesday order, Jones noted that when he granted the release of the previous 10 ICE detainees on March 31, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the three prisons. At this point in Pike County's prison, four detainees and four employees have tested positive.

One detainee in York County Prison has tested positive for the virus, officials have said.

Not protected? "And we can only assume that these numbers may well be much higher than reported — we have allegations before us that requests by detainees for COVID-19 tests have not been granted, despite explicit knowledge that the virus has entered the (prisons)," Jones wrote, adding:

"We also have further declarations that no effective containment measures have been put into place to protect (detainees). Officers and medical staff, who regularly leave the confines of the Facilities and have ample opportunities to contract the virus elsewhere, do not reliably wear gloves and masks when interacting with inmates. Temperature checks are infrequently conducted, even among detainees who had close contact with others who have since tested positive."

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III

Also, Jones wrote, the cell blocks which housed detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 weren't thoroughly evacuated and cleaned.

"We even have reports that detainees exhibiting COVID-like symptoms are remaining in general housing for days, and that once they are quarantined, no testing is being provided to those who remain," the order states.

Conditions worsening? Not only have conditions in the York and Pike county prisons not improved in the wake of the global pandemic, "all indications point towards the contrary," according to the order.

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The judge noted that ICE "has a range of highly effective tools at its disposal to ensure that individuals report for court hearings and other appointments," including electronic monitoring, in-person reporting, intensive supervision, unannounced home visits and voice-recognition software.

"We are mindful that judicial decisions such as these are both controversial and difficult for the public to absorb," Jones wrote. "It is all too easy for some to embrace the notion that individuals such as Petitioners should be denied relief simply because they lack citizenship in this country. However ... Courts do not operate according to polls or the popular will, but rather to do justice and to rule according to the facts and the law."

Jones was appointed federal judge in 2002 by President George W. Bush.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.