Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Lawsuit Seeks to Free At-Risk Immigrant Inmates from Massachusetts Prison

Interview with Aseem Mehta, a third-year Yale Law School student and intern with the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

A movement is underway to free at-risk immigrants held in detention centers and prisons throughout the nation, as COVID-19 spreads like wildfire under conditions where large numbers of people in confined areas cannot practice social distancing. The outbreak of the coronavirus in a Ohio prison is thus far the most serious hotspot in the U.S., surpassing the 725  infected at a meat-processing plant in South Dakota. There have also been smaller outbreaks at many other prisons and in immigration detention centers. Those incarcerated, their families, immigrants’ rights groups and legal advocacy organizations around the country have sought to free at-risk detainees –  those who can’t practice social distancing or the preventive hygiene required to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The conditions in which more than two million prisoners across the U.S. are held, also affect employees inside these facilities, including medical staff and corrections officers.

On March 27, the Workers and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale University Law School and Lawyers for Civil Rights, filed a class action lawsuit calling for the release of all immigrants held at the Bristol County House of Correction in eastern Massachusetts. This was the first legal action of its kind, as other lawsuits have focused on releasing specific individuals or specific groups of at-risk inmates. The Bristol County facility houses sentenced individuals, those held in pre-trial detention, and immigrants being held on civil violations.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Aseem Mehta, a third-year student at Yale Law School and an intern with the Workers and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, who discusses the strategy behind the lawsuit.

ASEEM MEHTA: This lawsuit was the first lawsuit filed on behalf of all individuals in immigrant detention facilities seeking release in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy of this lawsuit really reflects the organizing that was done and continues to be done by the folks on the inside. This lawsuit is specifically targeted at the Bristol County House of Correction, which is the largest immigration detention facility in Massachusetts and houses almost all the individuals who are residents of Connecticut who are detained by ICE because there are no ICE detention facilities in Connecticut itself. Folks who reside in New Haven or Connecticut and the surrounding New England states are more often than not brought to the Bristol County correction facility.

The strategy behind this lawsuit, as I mentioned, reflects the work that folks in Bristol were already doing as early as the first few weeks of March. Bristol is notoriously one of the worst facilities in New England in terms of its conditions of confinement, the treatment and quality of care that people have objected to, and that has only been heightened in the COVID-19 crisis.

Back in early March, when we in the public began to learn about the risks of COVID-19 and states started to order mass lockdowns, at that same time Bristol County was doing absolutely nothing to protect the folks in its custody. In response, the folks in immigration detention organized and released a series of letters describing the conditions of their confinement, the lack of care, the lack of protections that were provided to them, the approach of the staff at the facility to essentially deny that COVID-19 posed a risk to anyone and their refusal to provide information to folks that were detained about what the disease entailed and what procedures would be required to mitigate against those.

So, those letters were released in sequence in the first few weeks of March and published by local news outlets, and a lot of that work to get the word out and keep families of folks who were on the inside informed about what was happening was also cultivated by community groups in Boston and in Connecticut, including the CT Bail Fund, the Immigrant Bail Fund as well as Unidad Latina en Accion – ULA – in New Haven, and a Boston-based immigrant rights group called BIJAN, the Boston Immigrant Justice Accompanying Network.

MELINDA TUHUS: Aseem Mehta, the law clinic at Yale is co-counsel on this class action lawsuit filed on March 27 for immediate relief on behalf of all the detainees based on unconstitutional conditions and the risks to their health. I understand the judge is reviewing each case individually, and you’ve gotten some good results so far.

ASEEM MEHTA: Yeah, that’s right. Within a week there have been three hearings before Judge William Young to understand the scope of the situation. And as Judge Young wrote in his opinions, he recognized that this is an unprecedented moment requiring direct action and immediate action.

The judge certified the class, recognizing that all individuals in the facility were at risk — that’s being 147 people — and noted that all of those individuals were entitled to a review of whether they could be released. He set up a system in which he would review the cases of ten individuals at a time, each day, and look at the individual facts of their circumstances, and then order their release if it was appropriate. To date, 46 people have been released from the facility through this litigation, which has reduced the population by almost 40 percent. The court has continued to review cases every day; we, as counsel for everyone inside, have filed individual applications and briefings for the ten people he’ll be considering, and have done so every day for the past two weeks now. The court has taken a number of those cases under advisement, saying it is under consideration, and has not issued a ruling one way or another as to whether the court will deny their release or grant it. So there are a number of applications that are currently pending before the court.

MELINDA TUHUS: It’s interesting that the judge is a Reagan appointee.

ASEEM MEHTA: This is not an issue of politics; this is really an issue of public health and safety and our just minimal commitments to take care of each other. And the court has recognized that this is an urgent, unprecedented health crisis, and that folks who are locked up in jail, forcibly confined, are those that are most at risk. And we are hopeful that the lives of our clients will continue to be taken seriously and protected.

For more information on the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, visit law.yale.edu/wirac.

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