Three weeks of marathon bail hearings before U.S. District Judge Mary McElroy are concluding this week in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by ACLU attorneys last month seeking urgent relief for immigration detainees at the facility facing the spread of Covid-19 there. The result: the lawsuit has led to the conditional release of more ICE detainees (25) than are currently being held at the facility (24). Before this case was filed, the ACLU separately won a lawsuit that secured the release of three other medically vulnerable ICE detainees from Wyatt.
In an Order issued earlier this month, Judge McElroy said that “conditions at Wyatt, combined with the fact that COVID-19 is present in the institution, constitute emergency circumstances for every detainee housed there.” She criticized “the fact that several months into this pandemic and with widespread infection in the detention facility and surrounding community, the government has not undertaken any real effort to ascertain the underlying medical conditions of the detainees in this case.” The judge concluded by stating that conditions at Wyatt “present a case for a substantial claim of constitutional error and present facts which may lead the Court to conclude that their continued detention under these circumstances presents a substantial risk of serious harm of death.”
The judge’s order led to the individual bail hearings for more than three dozen detainees over the past three weeks. The Judge ordered 16 detainees conditionally released, and ICE voluntarily released 9 more.
The lawsuit is being handled by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorneys Deborah Gonzalez and Jared Goldstein, who both are professors at Roger Williams University School of Law; and lawyers from the firm Morgan Lewis. The suit was filed at a time when the count of detainees at the facility infected with COVID-19 more than doubled in three days.
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Gonzalez said today: “I’m very pleased with the outcome of most of the individual detainee’s bail hearings. More than just getting the detainees released from Wyatt due to Covid, we brought to light Wyatt’s inability to keep these civil detainees safe while the threat of the pandemic exists inside the facility - many of whom are suffering from underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of death if infected.”
“We are thrilled that our clients will have the opportunity to practice social distancing and other precautionary measures in a safer place than ICE can provide,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project. “Our clients are just asking for protections that are guaranteed by the constitution. ICE has proven again and again that it can't be trusted to meet basic standards of health, safety, and dignity — even before COVID-19. The release of all the people at Wyatt is the only humane approach to a deadly pandemic.”
Attorney Goldstein added: “It is no exaggeration to say that the stakes in this case involved life and death. The Constitution does not allow the government to imprison people under conditions that unreasonably threaten their lives. With the serious outbreak of COVID-19 at Wyatt, it was obvious that continued detention of immigrant detainees there violates their constitutional rights. I’m proud to see that our Constitution worked to protect the health and lives of those who have been released. I regret that any immigrants remain behind the locked doors and barbed wire at Wyatt, but I’m hopeful that the reduced population may make social distancing more possible.”