'Humanitarian crisis': ACLU sues, says York County Prison puts ICE detainees at risk from coronavirus

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Members from Indivisible York, a local organization that advocates for political reform, hold protest signs in front of York County Prison's federal immigration wing on July 12, 2019.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has sued York County Prison Warden Clair Doll and two other prison wardens in the state, alleging that the three prisons' treatment of 13 federal immigration detainees is putting them at grave risk from COVID-19.

"These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures," according to the lawsuit, filed Monday in Harrisburg's federal court. "Plaintiffs implore this Court to issue an order saving those who are most vulnerable to severe illness and death from the oncoming calamity."

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Dechert law firm in Philadelphia are asking a federal judge to release the 13 federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, as well as detainees who are age 45 and older and those who have medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.

The plaintiffs include five detainees at York County Prison. The other eight are being held in Pike County's and Clinton County's correctional facilities. All 13 have chronic ongoing health issues that put them at higher risk of contracting the disease and potentially dying from complications, according to the lawsuit.

"COVID-19 ... is rampaging across the world like an out-of-control wildfire ... with lethal consequences, especially for the elderly and people with certain pre-existing medical conditions," the ACLU wrote in the lawsuit.

York County spokesman Mark Walters said neither he nor Doll could comment on the lawsuit or answer specific questions about whether ICE detainees are held in crowded conditions, whether they are still being brought to the prison despite the COVID-19 pandemic and whether York County Prison's medical practices are inconsistent with federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Last week, Doll wrote in an email to The York Dispatch that since March 16, the prison has been checking temperatures of employees and private contractors before they enter the prison and also screening incoming prisoners.

Inmates and detainees with fevers or flu-like symptoms are being isolated, monitored and treated, the warden has said, and employees and contractors with fevers aren't permitted inside the prison for at least seven days, and until their temperatures have returned to normal for at least 72 hours without the help of fever-reducing medications.

After a symptomatic person is identified inside York County Prison, surveillance footage is reviewed to see who might have been infected and what housing units should be quarantined and monitored by a medical professional, Doll has said.

More:Warden: York prison monitoring staff, inmates; quarantining as necessary

Civil detention: The 13 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are a diverse group from around the world, all being held in what's known as "civil detention" as they wait for their immigration cases to be decided, the ACLU said.

"They are united by the fact that they are older adults and/or they have serious pre-existing medical conditions, including lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, severe asthma, chronic kidney disease, immunosuppression, liver disease, chronic hepatitis B, spinal cord injury, high blood pressure and cancer," the lawsuit states.

"Epidemiological studies indicate that about 15% in this group will die," according to the lawsuit. "For others, the COVID-19 virus can cause severe damage to lung tissue ... and can damage tissues in other vital organs including the heart and liver."

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

But social distancing is not possible for ICE detainees at York County Prison or at the Pike County and Clinton County facilities, who live in close quarters, the ACLU maintains.

"Toilets, sinks, and showers are shared, without disinfection between use," the lawsuit states. "Food preparation and food service is communal, with little opportunity for surface disinfection."

Vanessa Stine, immigrants' rights attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, told The York Dispatch that ICE-detainee housing at York County Prison is dormitory-style — called pods — and that there are between 50 and 60 people in each pod.

Ignoring CDC guidance? "Current conditions and procedures in place at the three ICE(-contracted) facilities, as described by plaintiffs' declarations, cannot be seen as sufficient to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 or to prevent its rapid transmission among both detainees and staff," the suit alleges. "Based upon the plaintiffs' declarations, none of the ICE facilities are following CDC guidance in relation to social distancing."

The ACLU maintains that ICE detainees don't have access to hand sanitizer, must share a daily ration of soap and must clean their own facilities without protective gear.

The state ACLU chapter is arguing that the only viable public health strategy available at this point for detainees, since there is no vaccine or effective treatment, is to release those considered at high risk of severe disease or death if infected with COVID-19.

The ACLU describes the detainees' conditions at all three prisons as crowded. The lawsuit alleges some of the plaintiffs "are triple-celled and others are packed into open spaces where they literally can touch people sleeping next to them."

Sixty people share a handful of sinks and showers that are cleaned infrequently and they eat meals "prepared and served in unsanitary conditions" while sitting shoulder to shoulder, according to the lawsuit, which alleges that medical practices at all three prisons are inconsistent with CDC guidelines.

'Grave risk': "Two plaintiffs, and many other detainees, have COVID-19 symptoms, but the prisons refuse to test them," the suit alleges, but doesn't say which of the three prisons is housing them. "They are neither quarantined nor isolated ... putting Plaintiffs at grave risk of serious illness or death."

The lawsuit cites the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and said courts have "long recognized" that it forbids government "from leaving (the incarcerated) to suffer and die from infectious disease."

York County Prison Warden Clair Doll

It also states the Fifth Amendment guarantees that civil detainees may not be subjected to punishment. Violating the plaintiffs' due-process rights by allegedly failing to provide for basic human needs amounts to punishment, the suit argues.

"Clustering vulnerable individuals under these circumstances and waiting for COVID-19 to explode in detention centers is not just a humanitarian crisis, it is a constitutional one," the lawsuit states. "There is a growing recognition among courts and even prison systems that release from detention is the only way to protect vulnerable detainees from COVID-19."

The five plaintiffs being held in York County Prison are Meiling Lin, 45, of China; Jean H.C. Agustin, 34, of Haiti; Rodolfo Agustin Juarez, 21, of El Salvador; Catalino Domingo Gomez Lopez, 51, of Guatemala; and Mayowa Abayomi Oyediran, 40, of Nigeria.

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