Advocates call for release of ICE detainees in York County

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in March, advocates have called for the release of inmates in prisons and jails where tight quarters make efforts to mitigate COVID-19's spread difficult.

But standing in front of York County Prison on Thursday, organizers from across the state pleaded for the release of a different group of detainees: Immigrants at the prison who are often detained not for violent crimes, but for crossing a border.

"This has never been right," said Alix Webb, an organizer with Asian Americans United. "But now more than ever, it is a violation of people's basic human rights to be incarcerated here and in any other detention centers across the country. It is a life-threatening situation."

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

More:Decades after Golden Venture, York County is an immigration detention hub

Among the more than 200 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-authorized detention facilities in the country, the county prison's 800-person capacity ranks 22nd for capacity. 

There were 330 ICE detainees in the prison as of Friday, according to county spokesperson Mark Walters.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that tracks COVID-19 cases reported by ICE, states that there have been at least 118 cases among detainees at York County Prison since April 3, when the first case was reported.

ICE reported that, as of Monday, 10 detainees were "currently under observation or monitoring" because they might have been infected, according to the organization.

From left, Patricia Almanza, of Mount Joy, Guadalupe Hernandez and Aracely Hernandez, both of South Philadelphia, during the "Free Our Loved Ones" vigil held outside York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, on Human Rights Day, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Attendees would urge officials to release those being detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the York Detention Center, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dawn J. Sagert photo

However, based on small testing samples and a lack of detailed reporting by ICE, those numbers are likely significantly higher — up to 15 times higher as of May — the organization states.

As of noon Monday, York County as a whole had 17,522 cases and 296 deaths linked to the disease. And the county's infection rate has risen sharply over the past week. 

Advocacy organizations all over the country have said since the pandemic began that ICE was ill-equipped to tamp down infection diseases in the crowded facilities. 

As of Nov. 19, ICE reported that 7,339 of 62,080 tested detainees were positive for COVID-19 — a nearly 12% infection rate, according a report released Wednesday by the Detention Watch Network, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

There had been eight deaths linked to COVID-19 among detainees.

In total, ICE detention activities were linked to an additional 245,581 cases between May 1 and Aug. 1, the report added. Meanwhile, ICE ramped up enforcement activities, the report alleges.

The Detention Watch Network pointed to ICE's history of poorly handling a variety of outbreaks.

For example, in 2019, ICE had to place 5,200 detainees in quarantine nationwide — or about one out of every 10 detainees — for exposure to mumps and chicken pox.

"Experts have long condemned the agency for violating international norms and placing the health and welfare of detained people at risk," the report states. "Despite the overwhelming evidence, the restrictive and punitive detention system has continued to grow over the last several decades."

York County has released some prisoners amid COVID-19 outbreaks, which included those detained by ICE. But the number has been relatively small.

In April, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III  ordered the immediate release of 13 immigrants being held in federal detention at York County Prison and nine in Pike County's prison, per the request of the state's American Civil Liberties Union.

One week earlier, Jones granted a previous request by the ACLU to release 10 immigrants being held at prisons in York, Pike and Clinton counties.

Those released were all said to have heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.

But even statewide, efforts to release detainees, whether they are serving prison sentences or are detained by ICE, have been slow.

Only 109 inmates have been released since Gov. Tom Wolf in April implemented the Temporary Program to Reprieve Sentences of Incarceration, according to the state Department of Corrections.

As of Friday, more than 2,500 inmates were actively positive for COVID-19 in state prisons.

"To those inside, and to those who have families inside, we want you to know that we love you, you are not forgotten, and we will continue to fight for you and your children," said Desi Burnette, an organizer with Movimiento de Inmigrantes Líderes en Pensilvania.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.