ACLU seeks class-action status, release for some ICE detainees amid COVID-19

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

On the heels of securing the temporary release of federal immigration detainees being held in York County Prison and jails in Pike and Clinton counties, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has now asked a federal judge to convert its original case to a class-action lawsuit.

On Friday, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union amended its petition, filed in federal court in Harrisburg, to add 11 new detainees that the organization argues should be released. The 13 named in the original petition remain on the amended one.

Six of the 11 new petitioners are being held in York County Prison, according to Andy Hoover, spokesman for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Like those already released, the 11 civil detainees now added to the case are particularly vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19 because of their medical conditions and/or because they are age 45 or older.

The ACLU is also asking a federal judge to define the class of people affected by the ruling "as anyone in immigration detention who is at heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19 due to age or underlying medical condition," according to a news release.

"It’s increasingly clear to us that federal immigration authorities are not serious about preventing the spread of COVID-19 in county jails where our clients are held," Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in an emailed statement. "In all of the facilities, people who are detained cannot physically distance from each other. And they are still not being rationed enough personal hygiene items, including soap. The court has to act because ICE will not."

Class-action suit: The ACLU is asking that all U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at the three prisons who are age 45 or older or who have a serious medical condition that makes them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, be released and recognized as a class so that a class-action case can move forward.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III

ICE has opposed the two earlier ACLU filings that convinced U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to issue a temporary restraining order that released two groups of detainees being held in the prisons.

In both filings, York County Prison Warden Clair Doll is named as a respondent by the ACLU.

Jones' first ruling, on March 31, ordered ICE to release 10 of 13 detainees being represented by ACLU of Pennsylvania and Dechert Law Firm in Philadelphia. The other three detainees were released by ICE prior to the judge's order.

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

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

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

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

On April 10, Jones issues a separate ruling on a second ACLU petition that ordered the release of 20 more detainees — 12 at York County Prison and eight at the Pike County Correctional Facility.

U.S. Attorney David Freed, representing ICE, York County Prison and others, appealed that second ruling to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case remains pending further argument.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, the government had not filed a response to the ACLU's amended petition.

No improvement? In that petition, the ACLU maintains housing arrangements at the prisons in York, Pike and Clinton counties haven't improved.

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

The county jails in York and Clinton counties hold ICE detainees in dormitory-style housing with between 50 and 70 men living in a single room, with bunk beds just a few feet from each other, according to the ACLU.

The amended petition maintains the petitioners are in a "precarious situation" and that conditions "only continue to worsen at the three facilities."

"York and Clinton continue practices that are wholly insufficient to prevent viral spread across the facility," it states. In York County Prison, about 40 women being detained by ICE sleep so close together they can reach out and touch each other, according to the petition.

About 60 civil detainees in York's prison share six toilets and six showers, as well as eat so close together they bump elbows, the petition states.

More COVID-19 cases? In York County Prison, a detainee was sick for six days before she received medical attention, the ACLU alleges.

"Despite multiple women now exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 (in York County Prison), no one has been tested," the petition states. "Nor have the dorms been rearranged to implement recommended social distancing."

In his previous rulings, the judge has said that although the prisons "may have ramped up their sanitation protocols," conditions in the facilities still represent a threat to the petitioners' constitutional rights.

"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," Jones wrote in an earlier order. "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."

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

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