Coronavirus: US doctors demand immediate release of prisoners and detainees to avert disaster

Overcrowded conditions and impossibility of social distancing leave prison populations extremely vulnerable

Andrew Naughtie
Thursday 19 March 2020 10:39 GMT
Mother of toddler who died in migrant detention centre speaks about conditions at border facilities

As doctors and medical workers across the US raise the alarm about the coronavirus’s risk to prison populations, thousands of medics have signed an open letter calling upon the immigration authorities to release individuals and families from detention.

The letter, which at the time of writing had been signed by more than 3,000 people, is addressed to the director of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In it, the undersigned medics implore the ICE “to release individuals and families from immigration detention while their legal cases are being processed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate the harm of an outbreak”.

“Detention facilities,” they point out, “are designed to maximise control of the incarcerated population, not to minimise disease transmission or to efficiently deliver health care.

“We strongly recommend that ICE implement community-based alternatives to detention to alleviate the mass overcrowding in detention facilities. Individuals and families, particularly the most vulnerable – the elderly, pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and those at higher risk of complications – should be released while their legal cases are being processed to avoid preventable deaths and mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak.”

ICE’s detention centres have been roundly criticised not just for who they detain, but for their conditions, which are often harsh and overcrowded. As the doctors point out in their letter, these are exactly the circumstances in which a contagious disease is likely to spread.

And with a huge backlog of immigration cases waiting to be heard, keeping so many people in detention while they await hearings will only mean the overcrowding gets worse.

A similar call to release those at risk has come from the chief physician of Rikers Island, the principal prison in New York City, who has called on New York’s judges and prosecutors to release inmates where possible in the name of protecting them from the virus.

The physician writes that “the luxury that allows you to protect yourselves, carries with it an obligation to those you detain”.

“We cannot change the fundamental nature of jail,” he writes. “We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.

“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”

New York would not be the first major US city to take steps like these. Los Angeles has released some 600 people serving time for minor and non-violent offences, and has also instructed police officers to avoid arresting people unless absolutely necessary and issue citations instead. The number of arrests has duly plummeted.

Elsewhere, though, there remains an inequality between people detained and those who oversee their detention. As the Rikers Island physician put it: “The luxury that allows you to protect yourselves, carries with it an obligation to those you detain.

“You must not leave them in harm’s way.”

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