'They Fear That They're Going To Die Here'; ICE Detainees In Bristol County Speak Out On COVID-19 Concerns

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ICE detainees held at Bristol County House of Correction say many of them have pre-existing medical conditions putting them at even greater risk of contracting coronavirus.

According to a letter dated March 23, 28 of the 57 ICE detainees in 'Unit B' have chronic illnesses, including leukemia, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and tuberculosis.

The letter describes 57 people detained in one unit, with only 3 feet between bunk beds. This falls well short of both the state and federal guidelines for social distancing.

Marco Battistotti is an Italian national who's currently detained by ICE in Bristol County. He called WBUR from the House of Correction and said his fellow detainees feel desperate, especially those who are locked up while waiting to be deported.

"They've been sitting here as hostages for the past three to four months. Some of them, they're actually willing to buy the tickets with their own money," he said.

"They fear, they fear that they're going to die here."

The ICE detainees asked for the immediate release of the 28 individuals described as having pre-existing conditions; the release of those who have no aggravated felonies; and the speedy deportation of those who have final removal orders.

This is the second letter written by the detainees, citing concerns about overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorney Ira Alkalay has several clients who are currently detained by ICE in the facility. He says 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," he said.

In an email, Jonathan Darling, a spokesperson for the Bristol County Sheriff's Office (BCSO), said all ICE detainees and county inmates with chronic health issues are prioritized by medical providers.

None of the ICE detainees have received testing for coronavirus, according to Darling.

Last week, two medical experts employed by the Department of Homeland Security sent a letter to Congress calling for the release of all ICE inmates who don’t pose danger to community.

“Reassessing the security and public health risks, and acting immediately, will save lives of not only those detained, but also detention staff and their families, and the community-at-large,” they wrote.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley has called for the compassionate release of inmates and detainees in an effort to stem the spread of the virus among the detained population.

ICE detainees sent this latest letter to Congressmen Joseph Kennedy and Bill Keating as well as Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren. All of them, except Keating, have called for the release of ICE detainees and low level offenders held as inmates.

In a statement, Congressman Kennedy said ICE detention facilities nationwide should release detainees.

"Every facility across the country should immediately release all immigrants without a criminal conviction and begin releasing low level offenders who pose no threat to public safety to protect our public health — Sheriff Hodgson is no exception," Kennedy said.

Darling, the spokesperson for BCSO, said in a statement that the sheriff has no jurisdiction to release either ICE detainees or county inmates.

Federal immigration officials declined to comment.

This article was originally published on March 24, 2020.

This segment aired on March 24, 2020.


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Shannon Dooling Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.



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