Michigan advocates: ‘Civil immigration detention should not be a death sentence’

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Immigrant rights attorneys and advocates are calling for the release of vulnerable detainees held in ICE lockups because they are unable to engage in social distancing during the pandemic.

Lawyers with the ACLU of Michigan, By Any Means Necessary Detroit, and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center are protesting the conditions at four facilities in Calhoun, Chippewa, Monroe and St. Clair counties. All have contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold detainees.

"Civil immigration detention should not be a death sentence," said Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project. 

Advocates are speaking out as Michigan prisons and jails weigh releasing more vulnerable, nonviolent inmates.

Monroe County Sheriff's deputies block protestors from entering the grounds of the Monroe County Inmate Dormitory Facility in Monroe, Mich., Friday, April 24, 2020.

The debate comes as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered a series of changes aimed at reducing the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, including suspending inmate transfers and allowing local jails more freedom to release inmates amid the crisis.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, the region’s top federal law enforcement officer, has warned against a mass release of defendants or convicted inmates in the region. Neither Whitmer nor Schneider have addressed immigrant detention centers.

No inmates have tested positive at the Calhoun, Chippewa or the Monroe jails as of Monday, jail officials said, but the virus has spread to inmates and staff members at St. Clair County Jail.

The ACLU of Michigan, along with its National Prison Project, filed a class-action lawsuit against ICE in federal court on Monday on behalf of immigrants detained at Calhoun County's jail, the largest ICE detention site in the state with 130 detainees.

"For our clients, it likely will be when, not if, a COVID-19 outbreak occurs in this facility," Cho said. "ICE has a legal and a moral obligation to release our clients so they can practice social distancing along with the rest of the community. If it does not, it will be responsible for lives lost."

ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said the agency has been taking aggressive measures to protect detainees. He said ICE is reviewing cases involving those who are 60 years or older, pregnant or at higher risk for severe illness with COVID-19.

"Utilizing CDC guidance along with the advice of medical professionals, ICE may place individuals in a number of alternatives to detention options," Walls said. "Decisions to release individuals in ICE custody occur every day on a case-by-case basis."

Five inmates, three corrections deputies and a contracted medical staff member at St. Clair County Jail have been infected with the virus. St. Clair Jail administrator Tracy DeCaussin said the lockup has been following guidance from the Emergency Operations Center and the Centers for Disease Control.

"We are aware of the statements being made regarding hygiene and health care supplies," DeCaussin said. "From the onset of this pandemic, we have maintained our high standard of cleanliness. In addition, we have increased the frequency of cleaning in our high traffic and inmate housing areas. The safety of our staff and inmates are of utmost importance."

As of April 19, ICE has done 407 tests for COVID-19 nationally. Numbers for Michigan were not immediately available. 

ICE said it's testing detainees but in cases in which someone needs a higher level of care, they are sent to a local hospital for testing there. ICE officials do not take into account confirmed cases of COVID-19 of those who have been released to hospitals or under supervision.

Monroe County Sheriff's vehicles block a caravan from entering the grounds of the Monroe County Inmate Dormitory Facility in Monroe, Mich., Friday, April 24, 2020.

More than 700 detainees have been released by ICE. But a coalition of 10 organizations wants more out. They held a caravan protest outside a Monroe jail on Friday. Advocates called for the release detainees, saying until conditions are made sanitary, they should quarantine with their families.

Kate Stenvig, Michigan Coordinator for BAMN who helped organize the protest in Monroe and similar ones in St. Clair, said Michigan needs to follow the lead of other states, including New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Texas and California, which have started releasing detainees from local and county jails due to the health hazards.

“Michigan’s continuing shortage of COVID-19 testing, and the extent to which the virus already has spread far and wide in Michigan’s population, means that any count of COVID-19 cases within (Calhoun's facility) or any facility inevitably must be undercounting. In the past two weeks, the number of positive COVID-19 cases within Michigan jails and prisons has ballooned," she said.

As of Monday, 38 inmates in Michigan have died from the virus. The first death was April 1.

'Never given hand sanitizer'

Reynaldo Albino-Martinez, 54, a former detainee at St. Clair County Jail, has been hospitalized with COVID-19 after being housed with dozens of inmates, he said in a federal court declaration.

Martinez, who has been in the United States since 1989, was arrested for driving without a license in February and was charged with being in the country illegally.

Martinez described being housed with dozens of inmates who shared two bathrooms with two sinks and one working shower. Upon his arrival in February, he said detainees are given one bar of soap.

"I was never given any hand sanitizer nor did I know of anyone in the pod (cell) who had any," he said in a federal court declaration. "Detainees must purchase other products through commissary but only if they have sufficient funds in their account."

Martinez said the staff at St. Clair County site did not offer guidance on what precautions to take to stay safe during the pandemic and rarely was anything cleaned. 

Suffering from diabetes, coronary artery disease and a condition causing bleeding behind his eyes, Martinez said he feared for his life in the lockup, where he lived with others in a "pod," a dormitory-style cell. Partially blind, he relied on others to inject his insulin and to help him eat and get to the phones.

"One detainee in our pod was designated as a 'trustee' who was in charge of cleaning the shared areas, but cleaning did not happen every day," he said. "The pod is not large enough for individuals to practice social distancing. The sleeping arrangements also made it impossible to be six feet away from other detainees."

Others in the pod became ill and the last thing Martinez remembered was saying to a nurse, "This is too much, I need help," before he fainted. He said he woke up in McLaren Port Huron hospital, cuffed to the bed.

Attorneys fought for his release, saying if he been able to quarantine with his family, he wouldn't have tested positive for the coronavirus and pneumonia.

After the hospital discharged Martinez, he was sent back to the jail. On April 14, he was released under an order of supervision, but he couldn't go back to his family, saying he was sicker than before. Martinez returned to the hospital and has remained there, unable to walk or take full breaths, his lawyers said.

St. Clair officials did not comment on Martinez's release.

Monroe County Sheriff's vehicles block a caravan of protestors from entering the grounds of the Monroe County Inmate Dormitory Facility in Monroe, Mich., Friday, April 24, 2020.

To the jails

BAMN, an advocacy coalition defending immigrants' rights and whose law firm is representing some of the immigrants in court, argues that ICE is undercounting cases because prisoners are not being tested until they're hospitalized, which allows the detainee lockups to say they have no cases of COVID-19.

Susan Reed, executive director of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ypsilanti, sent a letter to the four county sheriff's in charge of oversight of the immigrant detention centers, saying detainees are worried about their health and lack of hygiene products in the jails.

Reed said detainees find diluted sanitizers and say hygiene products such as bathroom and facial tissue are used up quickly. She urged sheriffs to increase cleaning and limit communal meals. 

"We understand that right now as a result of COVID-19, certain resources are harder to procure than normal," she said in the letter. "However, these civil detainees need quality, accessible sanitation products to prevent any possible COVID-19 outbreak." 

In addition to soap, ICE officials said they have provided alcohol-based sanitizer in the visitor entrances and exits to staff and detainees along with cleaning supplies.

"Detainees are encouraged to communicate with local staff when additional hygiene supplies or products are needed," ICE said.

Miriam Aukerman, ACLU Michigan lead staff attorney, said the system could not move fast enough to prevent Martinez's illness. 

“We will see more infections. … This is just a race against time,” Aukerman said. “This was predictable and is an inevitable consequence for keeping people detained unnecessarily."

Aukerman said it's common to hear detainees describe being held with 15-20 people in a large cell who have meals together because they can't social distance, she said.

"We have so many people who don’t belong in detention and should be able to fight their cases from home," she said. "We’re all socially distancing, people who are in detention can not do that. Some of the facilities are dorm-style housing.

"If you’re bringing people in and out, eating your meals with different people, and new people are coming in all the time, it's a complete disregard for human life."

Detainee cases

The ACLU prison project is calling for the release of six inmates at Calhoun County.

Shanta Driver, attorney and national chairperson of BAMN, asked Whitmer to grant clemency to 10 inmates. She describes the inmates' conditions as vulnerable and in many cases, terminal if they were to catch the disease.

The 10 inmates represent "thousands more like them, who must be released from custody," Driver said.

Fawzi Zaya, an Iraqi refugee who has lived in the United States since 1982, when he was 4 years old, was granted a release on temporary supervision on Saturday. Zaya was convicted of second-degree murder and delivery of cocaine.

Zaya, who uses a wheelchair because of spinal stenosis, also suffers from high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma. BAMN successfully petitioned a federal court for Zaya's release.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy found that "no conditions of confinement at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility will be sufficient to protect this petitioner’s health, life and constitutional rights, short of release.".

"A lack of confirmed COVID-19 outbreak at the Calhoun County Correctional Facility does not justify a different conclusion," Levy said.

Jeannie Rhee, lead counsel for the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP who is representing immigrants with the ACLU, urged ICE to release vulnerable inmates so that detention “doesn’t become a death sentence.”

“Some came to escape the violence of their homeland and for a better life,” she said. “Now, while waiting for their immigration case to wend its way through the courts, they sit in detention fearing that their dream of becoming a U.S. citizen could end their life.”


Twitter: @SarahRahal_