DISSENT: Coronavirus is especially dangerous for those in prisons, jails, and immigration detention


Every day, government officials take more drastic steps to contain the coronavirus, including shelter-in-place orders, shutdowns of bars and restaurants and preparing college dorms to serve as makeshift hospitals.

But shockingly, ICE and some law enforcement agencies are largely going on with business as usual. According to the Los Angeles Times, ICE agents are continuing to arrest immigrants, including a 56-year old man who is the sole breadwinner for his family; the agents arrested him when he left his home to work and buy groceries that would have prepared his family for coronavirus lockdowns. And while a number of sheriffs and police departments are wisely choosing to ramp down enforcement of low-level offenses, many are continuing to book people into jail for minor misconduct.

This is a serious risk to public health. In this epidemic, being in a crowded prison, jail, or ICE detention center is even more dangerous than being on a cruise ship.

Public health experts agree that frequent handwashing and social distancing are critical for preventing the spread of coronavirus. But once you’re locked up, it’s impossible to engage in these self-protective measures. You have no control over how long you’ll be stuck in rooms filled with other people. You can be punished for keeping more than two small bars of soap in your bunk. And many jails ban alcohol-based hand sanitizers outright because officials believe that incarcerated people would try to use them to get drunk. Meanwhile, multiple shifts of jail staff come in and out, potentially introducing new infections to the jail or carrying infections back to their homes.

And if you happen to get sick? Medical care inside is often abysmal. Multiple reports by the ACLU, Detention Watch Network, Human Rights Watch and the National Immigrant Justice Center have found that inadequate medical care in ICE detention has contributed to numerous deaths of detained immigrants.

In essence, every new person who is arrested and incarcerated is being forced by the government to play a coronavirus version of Russian roulette: each day in jail increases one’s risk of exposure to the virus. This is dangerous not only to the people inside, but to the surrounding communities where jail staff live. In this crisis, the public health consequences of letting immigration and criminal justice policies continue unchanged vastly outweigh any public benefits of these policies.

That’s why the ACLU is urging the U.S. Department of Justice and state officials to let elderly people in prison and those with special medical vulnerabilities go home to their families. The ACLU has also filed suit against ICE in Washington state to require the agency to release medically vulnerable immigrants from the infamous Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. It’s also why New York City Council members and advocates are urging the mayor and the NYPD to halt arrests for low-level offenses.

And it’s why Tsuru for Solidarity has joined numerous immigrant rights organizations around the country in calling for ICE to prioritize public health by shutting down detention and suspending ICE arrests and raids.

It’s time for each of us to take action. While we’re hunkered down in our homes, every one of us can organize friends and family, contact local officials and our members of Congress to demand that ICE stand down for public health reasons, and contact our local and state officials to ask that they do everything possible to prevent unnecessary arrests and return people in jail to their families as quickly as possible.

Carl Takei, a Yonsei, is a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, co-chair of Tsuru for Solidarity, and a board member for the New York Day of Remembrance Committee. He now coordinates the ACLU’s national strategy on police practices, and previously conducted ACLU litigation and advocacy on prison privatization and immigration detention. You can follow him on Twitter at @carltakei, or reach him at nichibei@carltakei.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly nor the ACLU.

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