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ACLU renews push to free immigrant detainees after COVID-19 outbreak at Calhoun County Jail

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The ACLU of Michigan says medically-vulnerable immigrant detainees at the Calhoun County Jail should be released because of a COVID-19 outbreak there.

The jail houses immigrant detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The ACLU has been pushing for those deemed medically-vulnerable to be released during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group was back in federal court on Monday with renewed urgency. That’s because at least 22 detainees and two staffers at the jail have tested positive for the virus in the past week.

Calhoun County chief deputy and jail administrator Randy Hazel told Judge Judith Levy during the Monday hearing that jail officials first became aware of an inmate with possible COVID-19 symptoms on October 20. That person subsequently tested positive for the virus. Ultimately, 20 people within one section of the jail, Pod H, also tested positive.

It’s unclear how the virus got into the jail. Hazel said every inmate is given a COVID-19 test upon entry, then quarantined for 14 days.

Jennifer Newby, a lawyer representing ICE, said the outbreak is largely though not entirely confined to Pod H, and the jail is “taking a number of reasonable steps” to protect inmates.

But both ACLU lawyers and Judge Levy questioned whether the jail is doing enough to contain the virus and keep people safe. They say it’s impossible for people to socially distance inside the jail, that inmates have inadequate personal protective equipment, and that inmates aren’t required to wear masks when they’re confined to their pods. Jail staff often don’t wear masks or wear them incorrectly, according to detainee testimony.

The ACLU cites an affidavit from one detainee, Oscar Xirum Sanchez, as evidence that the jail is mishandling COVID-19 precautions and the subsequent outbreak.

According to Sanchez, who is housed in Pod H, one inmate began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms on October 5. Officers dismissed the symptoms as just a cold. About week later, the man was removed from the pod with no explanation. That’s around the time when others, including Sanchez, began experiencing COVID symptoms. Sanchez said officers also dismissed their concerns until October 20, when everyone in the pod was tested and put in quarantine lockdown.

“I am scared about the way things are being handled,” Sanchez reported. “I am frightened for my health. I worry that I am in the medical unit now because my condition is severe and I am dying, but nobody is telling me anything."

“The staff is not doing anything to keep us informed and they don’t seem to be doing anything to stop the spread of the virus. It seems they are more concerned with preventing information about what is happening here from spreading than they are about preventing COVID-19 from spreading.”

ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman told Judge Levy that the situation “puts a significant number of people at grave risk.”

“It’s critical to immediately identify and release everyone who’s at high risk [and] who’s not yet become infected,” Aukerman said. “Unfortunately, some of the individuals have already become infected.”

There is some dispute between plaintiffs and ICE—and apparently also between ICE and Calhoun County—about who exactly qualifies as “high-risk.” Aukerman said the court should immediately release all those detainees who both sides agree are high-risk, and then develop a process to decide who else may have conditions such as diabetes or hypertension that put them at high risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes.

“Frankly, we’re concerned they’re going to end up gravely ill or dead if they don’t get out immediately,” Aukerman said.

Aukerman also asked the court to mandate that Calhoun County take additional steps to protect inmates who are not released. The ACLU is also asking that Levy bar all new ICE admissions to the facility; require mass testing of the entire jail population, including staff; and institute daily reporting requirements.

Judge Levy did not immediately rule on the matter on Monday. But she said that much of the testimony she heard “gives me a great deal of concern.”

“The basis upon which I would make any decision is whether the conditions at Calhoun County Correctional Facility, in light of this increase in COVID-19 cases, amounts to unconstitutional punishment of ICE detainees—the medically-vulnerable and the others,” Levy said.

Levy said she was not yet ready to grant release to everyone deemed medically-vulnerable, simply because she doesn’t have information about the specifics of each individual. However, “I’m open to a more expedited [bail] process,” Levy said.

Levy did not issue any orders, but said she would “strongly recommend” that all inmates and corrections officers receive COVID-19 tests, saying the current protocol seems to be “a recipe for disaster.” She said the ACLU’s demands for heightened safety protocols are “very reasonable efforts that could make it less likely that we need to rush to release individuals altogether.”

Levy has released at least three detainees from Calhoun County for medical reasons since the ACLU filed its lawsuit in April. For its part, ICE says all detainees have had an appropriate custody review, and it has no plans to release anyone at this time.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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