Judge Urges ICE To Stop Sending Detainees To Bristol County While Coronavirus Lawsuit Plays Out

Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Dartmouth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in Dartmouth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A federal judge in Boston Monday urged U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to refrain from transferring new immigrant detainees into Bristol County sheriff's office (BCSO) facilities, though he stopped short of issuing a formal court order.

U.S. District Court Judge William Young heard arguments in a class action suit filed last week by Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) on behalf of two plaintiffs — both immigrants currently detained in ICE custody at BCSO facilities.

The suit alleges ICE detainees are unable to practice "social distancing" because of overcrowding and suggests new detainees are not properly screened for COVID-19 before being admitted. LCR is asking for the release of all ICE detainees from Bristol County facilities in an effort to protect the detainees and prevent the spread of the virus.

According to Jonathan Darling, a spokesperson for the BCSO, there are no identified cases of coronavirus among ICE detainees, though Darling also confirmed that none of the nearly 150 immigrant detainees have been tested for the coronavirus. He called the lawsuit "absurd" and said precautions are being taken to keep all staff, county inmates and ICE detainees safe.

ICE has declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Oren Sellstrom, an attorney representing the detainees, said they're not asking ICE to give up custody of these individuals, but instead to recognize the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic and instead turn to other options like home arrest or electronic monitoring via ankle bracelets.

"If you wait until the point at which the virus takes hold, wait until the point that there are individuals who are ill with the virus, it's too late," Sellstrom said in the hearing, which was conducted remotely via video teleconferencing.

Thomas Kanwit, an attorney representing ICE and the BCSO, suggested that perhaps the detainees are in fact safer within the confines of detention.

"The fact there aren't any confirmed cases in the Bristol County sheriff['s office], and you look at the outside world, suggests the Bristol County sheriff is doing something right," he said.

Neither Kanwit nor Sellstrom mentioned during the hearing that, according to the sheriff's office, none of the ICE detainees have been tested for the virus.

Young asked attorneys for both parties to provide more information to the court, including a list with the names, ages and genders of all ICE detainees held by Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, as well as any pre-existing health conditions that may render them particularly susceptible to infection from the coronavirus.

The next hearing is schedule for Thursday afternoon.

Headshot of Shannon Dooling

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



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