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57 Inmates To A Unit, Bunk Beds 3 Feet Apart; ICE Detainees In Bristol County Cite Overcrowding Amid COVID-19 Fears

The immigration detention center at the Bristol County Sheriff's Office in Dartmouth, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The immigration detention center at the Bristol County Sheriff's Office in Dartmouth, Mass. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

More than 50 immigrant detainees, under the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and housed at the Bristol County Sheriff's Office (BCSO), are raising concerns about overcrowding and possible exposure to the coronavirus.

In a letter dated March 18, the ICE detainees describe two corrections officers exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 while on duty in the facility last week. The letter goes on to outline the cramped living quarters of the ICE detainees of "Unit B," in which 57 people are housed in bunks approximately three feet away from another.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has banned all gathering of 25 people or more and the federal guidelines for "social distancing" call for at least six feet between individuals to help stem the spread of the virus.

According to the letter, a healthcare provider working within the BCSO correctional facility stated on Wednesday that the spread of the virus throughout the entire ICE unit was "inevitable" and expected within 30 days.

Jonathan Darling, spokesperson for the Bristol County Sheriff's Office, said in an email that corrections officers are instructed to stay home if sick. Earlier this week, two officers working within the ICE unit went home sick, were cleared by their doctors and were able to return to work, he said.

Darling also refutes the inmates' complaint about medical professionals in the facility.

"Our medical and security staff have been speaking to all inmates and detainees about the [COVID-19] situation and the dangers and risks of infection. Never did anyone tell any inmate or detainee that an outbreak is going to happen," he said.

There are currently neither cases nor suspicions of coronavirus among prison inmates, ICE detainees or staff, according to Darling.

Attorney Ira Alkalay said he has several clients who are currently detained by ICE in the facility and many of them are panicked.

"The sanitary conditions are very, very poor there to begin with. They [ICE detainees] feel trapped and are in fear for their lives," Alkalay said.

The letter, addressed to the head of ICE's Enforcement Removal Operations in New England and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, made several requests, including:

  • The immediate release of detainees with serious medical conditions
  • The immediate release of detainees considered a low risk to public safety
  • The immediate release of detainees who have not had their bond hearing
  • The immediate bond hearing and/or  release of detainees with hearings that are rescheduled
  • The deportation of detainees who have consented to leave the country within five days.

Federal immigration officials did not respond to a request for comment before publishing.

Fifty-one of the 57 ICE detainees held in Unit B of the correctional facility signed the letter. The remaining six refused, citing fear of retaliation, according to the letter.

Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts and the Mass. Law Reform Institute on Friday called upon ICE and the county sheriffs to release all ICE inmates in the name of stemming potential outbreaks of coronavirus within the detained population.

Related:

Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is an immigration reporter at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

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