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Judge declines to reconsider, orders immediate release of 12 ICE detainees at York prison

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Prison

A federal judge on Friday morning again ordered the immediate release of 20 federal immigrant detainees at two jails in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including 12 at York County Prison.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III's order denied a motion filed Tuesday by Harrisburg-based U.S. Attorney David Freed asking the judge to reconsider an earlier order to release the detainees.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a petition in Harrisburg's federal court on April 3, asking for the release of 22 federal immigration detainees. That number has dropped to 20 detainees, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have voluntarily released two of them, officials said.

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

They suffer from serious medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to contracting — and possibly dying from — COVID-19, the state ACLU has argued, including hepatitis C, asthma, hypertension, diabetes, seizures, traumatic brain injury and emphysema.

The background: Jones on March 31 granted a previous ACLU request to release 10 detainees at three county prisons, including four in York, noting all faced "imminent, irreparable harm," including death, if they contract COVID-19. The ACLU then filed another request asking Jones to release 22 (now 20) more detainees.

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In his Friday order, the judge wrote he was "unmoved" by assertions from an ICE field director that both prisons are equipped to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"While they may have ramped up their sanitation protocols, the simple fact that inmates are incapable of social distancing in the facilities remains," Jones wrote. "The conditions at the facilities as faced by these Petitioners continue to represent a threat to their constitutional rights."

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III

The judge noted he respects the position of Freed, York County Prison Warden Clair Doll and other respondents that "certain Petitioners pose a flight risk or danger to the community" and has attached conditions to the detainees' release to address the concern.

"Nothing herein prevents us from imposing different or additional conditions in the future, should this TRO (temporary restraining order) be extended or converted into a preliminary injunction," Jones wrote.

Judge's conditions: Conditions include that detainees must self-quarantine in their homes for 14 days after being released; comply with all of Gov. Tom Wolf's executive orders as well as national, state and local guidance regarding staying at home and social distancing; and appear at all hearings pertaining to their removal proceedings and/or fully comply with deportation instructions.

Detainees must also report their whereabouts to their attorneys once a week, and those attorneys will alert ICE if a detainee absconds.

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"This Order does not prevent the government from taking Petitioners back into custody should they commit any further crimes or otherwise violate the terms of their release," Jones wrote. "This order expires immediately if a Petitioner absconds."

The judge said Warden Doll and other respondents may impose "other reasonable nonconfinement terms of supervision" that don't violate guidance about social-distancing and staying at home.

The temporary restraining order expires April 20, but it could be modified into a preliminary injunction, and that time period could be lengthened.

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Thursday, June 29, 2017.

Reaction: Dawn Clark, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Harrisburg, said Friday morning that the office is reviewing Jones' order.

"We are relieved that Judge Jones has brought this saga to a close," Reggie Shuford, executive director of the state's ACLU, said in an email. "We hope this is the last word. The continued incarceration of our clients and others like them puts them in very real danger of serious illness or even death.

York County Prison has a capacity of 2,245 people, and as of Tuesday, was housing 1,341 people, according to government filings.

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

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