Hygiene, cleanliness conditions for ICE detainees in York prison concern advocates

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

A letter sent to York County Prison's warden and federal immigration officials last spring by several immigrant-advocacy groups urged officials to release current detainees and stop sending new ones there.

The letter cites specific concerns, including what the groups allege are hygiene and cleanliness shortcomings. The letter — and a subsequent meeting with prison officials — happened prior to fears in this country about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of coronavirus has intensified advocates' concerns for people in federal civil detention in York County and across the nation, according to Losmin Jimenez, senior attorney for the Washington D.C.-based Advancement Project.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania cited the letter as an exhibit in its lawsuit against York County Prison and two other facilities on behalf of 13 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their ages and/or serious medical issues.

The letter is in response to a 2½-hour tour taken by members of the advocacy groups during which York County Prison and ICE officials answered questions and allowed them to speak with people in federal immigration detention.

Met with prison: In response to the letter, prison officials met with advocates in October to discuss issues raised in the letter, according to Jimenez. The letter was signed by representatives from the advocacy groups Advancement Project, Juntos, Vietlead, Asian Americans United and Casa San Jose.

Jimenez noted that not all prisons agree to such meetings.

"We shared our concerns again, in person, and they listened to us," she said of York County Prison and ICE officials. "But we don't believe anything changed, based on the fact that we continue to hear stories from the people inside. And right now in this (COVID-19) crisis, we are concerned."

During the April 2, 2019, tour, officials told advocacy group members that York County Prison conditions exceed federal standards, according to Jimenez. Since then, she said, ICE has lowered those standards.

York County Prison Monday, June 10, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

York County spokesman Mark Walters said neither he nor Warden Clair Doll can comment on federal detainees or their detention and referred all questions to ICE. Doll has previously told The York Dispatch that people in the prison are being monitored, quarantined and treated if they are suspected of having COVID-19.

The York Dispatch sent ICE questions including whether there are potential deficiencies at York County Prison, whether ICE plans to temporarily release detainees who are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and whether ICE disputes allegations in the April 2 letter.

No answers: ICE public affairs officer Adrian Smith responded with a previously released general statement saying the health, welfare and safety of detainees "is one of the agency's highest priorities" and that ICE epidemiologists are tracking the outbreak and advising ICE staff. He then referred a reporter to the frequently asked questions page of ICE's website.

The York Dispatch has been unable to determine if detained immigrants continue to be brought to York County Prison from COVID-19 hot spots such as New Jersey, New York and the greater Philadelphia area.

The letter states that detainees' only access to water is from a faucet that's used for cleaning, personal hygiene and cooking by the 60 people living in each pod.

"Besides the concerns for cross-contamination between raw, uncooked foods and bodily fluids, there is a baseline concern for the cleanliness and safety of the water itself," the letter states. "We heard complaints of the water smelling like fecal matter and sewage."

Some detainees told the advocacy groups that clothing comes back from the prison laundry more soiled than when it went in, the letter states.

Others complained about delays in getting medical care, saying they had to wait days or weeks to have medical needs addressed, according to the letter.

Quality-of-life concerns: The letter states that detainees are forced to stay in their pods for 23 hours a day, including eating all their meals there, and have no shower curtains and no privacy in toilet areas.

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

ICE detainees held in York County Prison never go outside, according to the letter, which states that even small changes such as letting detained people outside and giving them shower curtains would improve their quality of life.

The letter cites complaints from detainees about half-cooked meat, spoiled juice and drinking water that smells of sewage. People rely on the prison commissary to supplement their meals, but the food is expensive even compared to other facilities, according to the letter.

"York also denies (detainees) access to hot water and microwaves — so even meals available for purchase ... like ramen or macaroni-and-cheese, must be made and eaten with the same cold, smelly bathroom sink water," the letter states. "There is no reason for these practices other than neglect and an unwillingness to provide for the most basic human needs."

The letter cites other concerns shared by the advocacy group, including the prison not allowing contact visits, the law library allegedly being inadequate and the fact that there is no outside cleaning service or prison janitorial staff.

'Eye opening': "Our visit to York County Prison was eye opening and depressing," the letter states, alleging immigrants are criminalized unnecessarily.

The groups' suggested remedies include ICE ending its contract with York County Prison, which has housed federal detainees since 1992, and to allow detainees to remain free while their immigration cases are being decided.

York County Prison Monday, Jun3 10, 2019. Bill Kalina photo

The letter also asks for changes including selling fresh fruits and vegetables in the prison commissary, using bleach in the prison laundry, giving detainees access to microwaves and a separate hot-water faucet so they can heat food bought at the commissary, having a sink area for food preparation and drinking that is separate from sinks used for personal hygiene and cleaning, and ensuring the water supply is safe.

Jimenez said the Advancement Project has sent follow-up questions to an ICE official, but that they eventually were directed to ICE's website.

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