HARRISBURG, Pa. - Thirteen people who are currently held in immigration detention in jails in three Pennsylvania counties have filed a federal constitutional lawsuit asking for their immediate release because they are at high risk for severe illness if they contract coronavirus while incarcerated. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the ACLU Immigrants Rights Project and National Prison Project, and the law firm Dechert LLP, the plaintiffs argue that they are vulnerable to coronavirus and the disease COVID-19 because of their age or serious medical conditions or both and that their continued detention is a violation of their constitutional rights.
“Social distancing is impossible in immigration detention,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “People in these facilities are housed in close proximity to each other with nowhere to go. Once the virus enters the jail, the staff and everyone detained there are at risk of a rapidly spreading disease.”
Several of the plaintiffs have serious health issues, including asthma, diabetes, cancer, hepatitis B, high blood pressure, and kidney issues; others are old enough to be at higher risk for COVID-19; and some are both at an advanced age and have significant health conditions. They are being held at York County Prison, Clinton County Correctional Facility, and Pike County Correctional Facility. They are all held as civil detainees and have not been accused of any serious crimes.
In their lawsuit, they describe conditions that prohibit them from protecting themselves from the spread of the virus. Detainees are housed in quarters with as many as 72 people sleeping in bunk beds that are an arm’s length apart and dine in congregate rooms sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.
At York County Prison, people who are in detention have no access to hand sanitizer or disinfectants; at Pike County, cellmates share a daily ration of soap. The Pike County facility houses three people in a cell with a shared toilet and sink. The plaintiffs also state that, when they clean the facilities, they are not given protective gear and, thus, are exposed to bodily fluids.
The plaintiffs argue that they should be freed because the federal government is violating their rights to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and their right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight Amendment.
“There is precedent for immigration authorities to release people for medical reasons,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “But ICE leadership seems utterly indifferent to the catastrophe they’re risking, not only for those in detention but for their own employees.
“This situation is so dangerous for our elderly and medically vulnerable clients that ICE is violating the Constitution by continuing to detain them.”
The Pennsylvania case is one of multiple lawsuits being filed by the ACLU around the country, including in Maryland and California.
“We are filing suits like this nationwide in an urgent effort to save the lives of immigrants who are most vulnerable to this virus,” said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project. “ICE officials have already started to test positive for COVID-19. Public health officials continue to advise that detention centers — as well as jails, prisons, and other similar facilities — must dramatically reduce their populations and density for the safety of detained people, staff who work in these facilities, and the communities in which they live. ICE will bear the ultimate responsibility for a humanitarian tragedy if it does not act now.”
The lawsuit, Thakker et al. v. Doll et al., was filed in federal court in the middle district of Pennsylvania. The 13 people who filed the lawsuit are asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order against federal immigration authorities to end their detention.
The plaintiffs are represented by Witold Walczak, Vanessa Stine, Erika Nyborg-Burch, and Muneeba Talukder of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Eunice Cho, David Fathi, Omar Jadwat, and Michael Tan of the ACLU; and Will Sachse, Thomas Miller, Carla Graff, Kelly Krellner of the law firm Dechert LLP.
A copy of the complaint is available at aclupa.org/Thakker.