Federal judge: Release 10 ICE detainees in York County Prison, 2 other jails

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

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has convinced a federal judge to release 10 federal immigration detainees being held in York County Prison and two other facilities — at least for now.

On Tuesday, Harrisburg-based U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III agreed with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that keeping those detainees locked up in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions puts them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

All 10 are either older or have serious medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, the judge determined. The ACLU initially had sought the release of 13 such detainees, but three have already been released by federal authorities, including one at York County Prison, an ACLU spokesman said.

The 10 plaintiffs include four detainees at York County Prison. County spokesman Mark Walters referred all comment to federal immigration authorities. An ICE spokesman issued a statement that ICE doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Jones issued a temporary restraining order and has given York County Prison Warden Clair Doll and others until noon on April 7 to show why the temporary order should not be made more permanent during the ongoing pandemic, according to federal court records.

"Judge Jones saw there is great risk of coronavirus spreading in the prisons ... and understood that keeping our clients detained was in violation of their rights," ACLU of PA spokesman Andy Hoover said.

Not 'if,' but when: Jones wrote in his 25-page order that the detainees face "imminent, irreparable harm," including death, if they contract the virus.

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

"At this point, it is not a matter of if COVID-19 will enter Pennsylvania prisons, but when it is finally detected therein," the judge wrote, adding that several of the 10 petitioners — who are being held in Pike County's and Clinton County's prisons as well as in York County Prison — have reported symptoms similar to COVID-19 but haven't been quarantined, isolated or treated.

"In a matter of weeks, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has rampaged across the globe, altering the landscape of everyday American life in ways previously unimaginable," Jones wrote, noting that more than 33,600 people have died worldwide and that it's against this "grim backdrop" that he considered the case and its merits.

The detainees are unable to practice social distancing, and there are allegations that corrections officers who have symptoms of the virus have interacted with inmates. according to the temporary restraining order.

"Immigration detention centers are particularly at risk for such close contact because they are considered 'congregate settings, or places where people live or sleep in close proximity,'" the judge wrote, citing a court exhibit. "Such conditions provide 'ideal incubation conditions' for COVID-19."

Dormitory-style pods: Jones noted that in York County Prison, those being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are housed in dormitory-style conditions, with 60 people residing in each housing block.

"Petitioners report that not even the medical staff wear gloves when in contact with inmates," he wrote. "Detainees must eat their meals four-to-a-table, with approximately three feet of space between individuals."

Jones noted that ICE has "a plethora of means other than physical detention" to monitor federal immigration detainees and to ensure they appear at their hearings, including remote monitoring and routine check-ins.

Jones wrote he "cannot see the rational basis" of risking infecting vulnerable detainees. His order states absconding while free would carry "grave consequences" for detainees.

A satellite view of York County Prison.

"Our world has been altered with lightning speed, and the results are both unprecedented and ghastly," Jones wrote. "The choices we now make must reflect this new reality."

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

'Not equipped': The order notes that York County Prison, Pike County Correctional Facility and Clinton County Correctional Facility — all contracted by ICE to hold detainees — are "plainly not equipped" to protect the 10 detainees "from a potentially fatal exposure" to coronavirus.

"While this deficiency is neither intentional nor malicious, should we fail to afford relief to Petitioners we will be a party to an unconscionable and possibly barbaric result," Jones wrote. "Our Constitution and laws apply equally to the most vulnerable among us, particularly when matters of public health are at issue. This is true even for those who have lost a measure of their freedom. If we are to remain the civilized society we hold ourselves out to be, it would be heartless and inhumane not to recognize Petitioners’ plight. And so we will act."

Asked whether the ACLU of PA intends to take further action based on Jones' ruling, Hoover said that must be determined.

At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Hoover said the ACLU was trying to get all 10 clients released by 6 p.m.

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