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Never Again Action protests ICE detention amid COVID-19 at the Wyatt – from their cars



“We cannot practice social distancing because of the way that the jail is ran. So right now we have about 69 people all clustered in one area.

In solidarity with hunger strikers inside the Donald M. Wyatt Detention Facility, local activists in more than two hundred cars protested dangerous conditions and overcrowding in the facility, calling on Regional ICE Field Director Todd Lyons to release detainees before COVID-19 kills the people under his care. 

The action is being planned by the Boston and Providence chapters of Never Again Action, a Jewish-led immigrant rights movement, and AMOR RI, an alliance of community-based grassroots organizations resisting individual and state sponsored violence.

In support of hunger striking activists on the inside of the facility, these groups are calling on ICE Field Director Todd Lyons to release all those who are detained, due to the extreme risk of contracting the virus in an overcrowded detention center where social distancing is impossible, and access to soap and hand sanitizer is extremely limited. If released, these people could return to their homes to safely shelter in place with their families, instead of being left as sitting ducks inside the Wyatt’s concrete walls. 

In this innovative COVID-safe protest action, more than two hundred cars of community members circled the facility, honking their horns and chanting calls to action. Participants were asked to only attend in their own vehicles, and only with people that they have been isolating with. The line of cars moved slowly around the building for an hour and a half, never stopping.

We are currently in the middle of the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, the annual celebration of the exodus of our ancestors from bondage in Egypt. “Let my people go,” said Moses to the Pharaoh in the Passover story, and today these Jewish and allied activists turn to Director Lyons and Governor Raimondo as the modern day Pharaohs of Rhode Island, who hold the power to let our people go from detention and potentially save hundreds of lives. Participants hung signs on their cars reading “let my people go,” along with other quotes from and allusions to the traditional texts and songs of the Passover celebration.

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Immigrants and the allied organizers supporting from the outside are calling on ICE Field Director Todd Lyons to release all those who are detained in Massachusetts, citing the extreme risk of contracting the virus in the detention center’s overcrowded conditions. 

In a digital rally held simultaneously with the car-based action, organizers from AMOR shared recordings of phone calls from activist detainees in the Wyatt, describing the response to their hunger strike. One hunger striker said (name withheld for their safety):

It’s very dangerous, there are people here that have cancer, there’s people here that already won their case. Their case is dismissed in court but they’re still here. […] We are fighting but we can’t go to court because the courts are closed, the lawyers are home, they’re not coming down, basically we’re stuck. […] If everything’s closed, why are we still here? Let us go with a bond, let us go with a bracelet! We have nowhere to go. We can’t run, everything’s shut down: we just want to be there with our family. Our family needs us.

Another person in detention described the crowding in the facility, reporting:

We cannot practice social distancing because of the way that the jail is ran. So right now we have about 69 people all clustered in one area.

This rally joins a wave of more than 16 COVID-safe actions that protesters with Never Again Action have co-organized across the country, since the escalation of the state-based COVID response. Previous actions regionally have included the projection of the image of Anne Frank in downtown Boston, and a car-based rally at the Bristol County Correctional Center.

Nationally, ICE has released at least 160 people and informed lawmakers that they are considering releasing hundreds more – but the agency is moving far too slowly and taking far too small steps considering the scale and escalating pace of the risk faced by the immigrants who are at their mercy. In nearby Bristol County a federal judge ordered releases to begin on a rolling basis, but this too is not enough – and in Rhode Island, zero people have yet been released from detention in this crisis.

Rose Gallogly, an organizer with the Boston Immigrant Justice Action Network, spoke at the digital rally during the action and said:

Conditions at the Wyatt have only gotten worse during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the people being imprisoned and detained within those walls are in more danger than ever. People detained by ICE do not have the option to maintain social distance. When the Coronavirus reaches the Wyatt, it will spread like wildfire.

People inside the Wyatt have already organized a hunger strike to protest this treatment, and the Wyatt has retaliated by denying strikers access to phones and commissary. In Bristol County, ICE officers are threatening imprisoned hunger strikers at gunpoint. We can’t let this machine keep running.

Rhode Islanders may remember that the Wyatt has a terrible record of providing adequate medical care to detainees – Hiu Lui Ng died while detained at the Wyatt due to medical neglect in 2008, after which the facility temporarily lost its ICE contract – and there has been no sign that adequate medical care would be provided to detainees who contract COVID-19.

Acting Boston ICE Director Todd Lyons recently claimed to the public that ICE is not “rounding up everyday people just going about their business.” AMOR correspondence with a person who has been detained tells a different story:

We are stuck, we can’t do anything. We can’t go to court, borders are closed, people’s families are sick, people are dying and…you wake up in the morning depressed…I wake up sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night with a panic attack because there’s nothing I can do, I’m looking at four walls and I’m stuck here.

Never Again Action is a mass mobilization of Jews who are organizing to shut down ICE and hold the political establishment accountable for enabling both the deportation machine that has separated immigrant families across the U.S. for decades and the current crisis at the border. We come together as a group of differently affiliated Jewish organizers, recognizing that we have seen this groundwork laid before. We understand it to be our community’s obligation to stand up when we see history repeat itself and to declare that Never Again means Never Again for anybody.

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