Petition offers a glimpse into the depressing and unsanitary conditions within the Wyatt…
Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the National ACLU filed a petition Friday evening on behalf of three detainees held at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island seeking release due to their medical conditions – including heart disease, asthma, decreased lung capacity, and diabetes – that put them at severe risk of death from COVID-19.
UPDATE: Asked for comment, the Wyatt Detention Center said, “No comment.”
UPDATE: Asked for comment, ICE responded, “As per our practice, we are going to decline to comment on this, as it is active litigation.”
The petition notes that, “[d]ue to the impossibility of adequate social distancing within Wyatt and the regular cycling of facility staff and guards into and out of a Rhode Island community with rising rates of infection, Petitioners are virtually certain to become infected with COVID-19 if they remain detained.”
The petition maintains that “[p]etitioners are not safe within Wyatt. Their medical conditions put them at high risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. The only known measures to mitigate the rapid spread of the virus— ‘social distancing’ (also referred to as ‘physical distancing’) and scrupulous hand hygiene—are impossible within Wyatt.”
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Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said today: “The ACLU is filing these cases around the country because, for our clients, a COVID-19 infection would likely be a death sentence. The moment is urgent — the health and wellbeing of detained immigrants, facility staff, and their communities are all at risk. Releasing people from detention is critical to flattening the curve and avoiding a humanitarian disaster.”
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Jared Goldstein added: “When the government detains or imprisons anyone, it has a duty to ensure their safety. Our clients suffer from serious medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to death from COVID-19. Yet in the face of a global pandemic that threatens vulnerable detainees like them, Wyatt has continued business-as-usual operations. By continuing to hold our clients in unsanitary conditions at Wyatt, where basic hygiene is ignored, the facility imperils their lives. The Constitution requires their release.”
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Deborah Gonzalez noted: “There are ICE detainees at Wyatt that have serious pre-existing conditions like heart disease, diabetes and severe asthma, to name a few, and who are seriously susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic. These folks need to be released as there is no way to exercise social distancing while detained, especially when the detainees are congregating in a group of 60 with no masks and with no way to keep the ordered 6 feet of distance.”
ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said: “The expert witness testimony submitted with our lawsuit makes abundantly clear the life-threatening risks faced by our clients. We are hopeful that the court will act favorably and authorize their release with appropriate conditions.”
Conditions within the Wyatt are described in the petition with depressing detail:
“Correctional officers and other Wyatt staff rotate regularly in and out of the facility, each potentially carrying infection from the outside world or other parts of the facility. Every day, officers wearing neither masks nor gloves enter Petitioners’ cells and handle all of their belongings. Detainees continue to be housed with cellmates in small cells measuring approximately five feet by nine feet. Petitioners spend significant portions of their days in close quarters in common areas, and are required to line up close together to receive their meals. As before the pandemic, Petitioners must eat their meals within arm’s reach of each other at chairs fixed to small tables. They exercise together and watch television together.”
Later in the petition, it is noted that “[a]ll three Petitioners are currently detained in the same housing unit or ‘pod’ within Wyatt. Most immigration detainees at Wyatt are housed in small double-occupancy cells with a cellmate. Both Petitioner Medeiros and Petitioner Palacios share with cellmates their small cells, which are roughly 5 feet by 9 feet in size. They sleep on bunk beds. New cellmates are introduced frequently. For instance, Petitioner Medeiros’ current cellmate arrived approximately two weeks before this filing, while Petitioner Palacios’ current cellmate arrived approximately one week before this filing. Neither of these Petitioners’ new cellmates were quarantined before being placed in the cells with Petitioners.”
The petition describes “unhygienic conditions” at the Wyatt, including, “[h]and sanitizer is not available to the detainees. The surfaces in the common areas are cleaned infrequently. The shared showers are not cleaned between uses, and mold is growing there. No disinfectant is available to clean the shared telephones that provide the detainees their only means to stay in contact with loved ones. In desperation to protect themselves, detainees have put their socks over the phones in hope of protecting themselves.”
“Before April 15, Wyatt corrections officers did not have masks,” notes the petition. “In fact, on or about April 9, Petitioner Medeiros observed a senior corrections officer order another officer to remove a mask he was wearing,” and “Although the guards were issued masks on April 15, Petitioners were alarmed to observe that all the guards took off their masks once they entered the pod, defeating the purpose of wearing masks.”
“Petitioners have no effective means to disinfect themselves or their cells. Petitioners are each issued one bar of soap per week. They have been given no hand sanitizer. When they request it, Petitioners are sometimes given what they believe is Windex to clean their cells but no paper towels. Instead, they must use their towels to wipe the cells, but they are only issued one clean towel per week.”
“Detainees in Petitioners’ housing pod share a communal bathroom, which includes showers shared by approximately 60 detainees. The showers are not cleaned between uses but instead are just washed down with water once a day. Detainees have no disinfectant with which they can clean the shower between uses.
“Petitioner Palacios is paid $6 per week to clean the showers once a day in the pod. For this task, he is given a bucket of water and a broom, but he usually is given no cleaning products. He is not allowed to replace the water during the cleaning. Occasionally he has been provided with what he believes is Windex to spray the shower walls, but he is given no brush or rag to help him and he can only use the broom for this work. The absence of any effective disinfectant treatment in the showers is obvious to all Petitioners from the mold growing on the showers.”
“Petitioners are required to line up in close proximity to other detainees for meals three times a day.
“Petitioner Palacios is one of the detainees assigned to serve food to his fellow detainees, and must hand each detainee their tray. He is not provided a mask for this task.
“After receiving their food, detainees eat together at small round tables three to four feet in diameter that seat four detainees at fixed chairs less than an arm’s length apart. The tables are wiped down after each meal, but no one cleans the tables throughout the day when detainees continue to sit at the tables and socialize.
“Petitioners cannot effectively disinfect their hands while they are in the common area, and have no access to hand sanitizer.”
“Because visitations have been suspended, the only way for Petitioners to stay in touch with their families is through the telephones in the common area. Rather than being disinfected after each use, these phones are cleaned once a day. The detainees have been provided no means to disinfect them. Out of desperation, some detainees have sought to protect themselves by placing a sock over the phone, in hopes that this might prevent exposure to the virus.”
Jails and prisons are veritable petri dishes for the spread of COVID-19, as evidenced by the situations in New York and Chicago, to name only two. Four cases of COVID-19 have been discovered at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) among prison staff, who come and go to the prison. And ICE detention facilities are no exception. the petition notes that as of April 17, 2020, “there are 105 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those detained in ICE detention facilities, and 118 ICE employees have tested positive for the virus.”
What has been happening inside the Wyatt stands in sharp contrast to what has been recommended or even legally required outside the facility. The petition notes that “[w]hile the Rhode Island Governor’s orders mandate social distancing, Petitioners have been forced to share crowded spaces with corrections officers, Wyatt staff, and fellow detainees. While Rhode Island has prohibited all gatherings of five persons or more, Petitioners and other immigration detainees at Wyatt spend most of their days in a common area with over fifty other detainees and in which Wyatt employees come and go frequently. Although the CDC [Center for Disease Control] has recommended that all Americans wear masks in public, neither Wyatt officers nor the detainees regularly wear masks.”
The petition details the recent hunger strike at the Wyatt, alleging that “[a]fter hearing news reports about the coronavirus pandemic in early March, Petitioners and other Wyatt detainees became increasingly alarmed about the threat to their health posed by the virus. Yet Wyatt continued business-as-usual operations.
“For weeks, detainees repeatedly asked for information about what was being done to protect them and what precautions they could take to protect themselves.
“On April 4, after ICE had not responded to their requests for information about the coronavirus, the immigrant detainees at Wyatt launched a hunger strike to try to convince ICE to provide some information.
“On April 6, an ICE official at Wyatt told the detainees that they were safer inside the facility than they would be if they were released, but otherwise did not provide any information about what measures were being taken to protect them from COVID-19.
“Rather than address the significant health concerns that gave rise to the hunger strike, Wyatt officials threatened that they would impose a lockdown if the hunger strike continued.
“Two detainees were removed from the pod as punishment for instigating the hunger strike, and Petitioners believe they may have been placed in solitary confinement.
“For two weeks following the start of the hunger strike, there was no hot water in the pod, and Petitioners suspect that it was shut off in retaliation for the strike.
“Neither Wyatt nor ICE officials have provided Petitioners any information about COVID-19, measures Wyatt is taking to protect them from the virus, or measures detainees can take to protect themselves. No signs explaining anything about the virus have been posted for the detainees to read. There have been no changes in cleaning and sanitation protocols.
“On April 14, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order requiring that masks be worn by workers in most Rhode Island businesses that remain open during the pandemic. Perhaps in response to the Governor’s order, Wyatt officers thereafter tossed into each cell a baggy containing one bar of soap, one disposable mask, and one pair of disposable gloves. They offered no explanation or instructions on when detainees should wear masks and gloves, and few of the detainees are wearing them.
“The following day, on April 15, Wyatt officers were issued masks. But they too are not actually wearing them.
“Face masks are not effective if people are not wearing them, do not have instructions to use them properly, do not combine their use with frequent hand cleaning, and do not have adequate replacements. Crucially, the CDC has recognized that masks are not a substitute for social distancing.”
Adriano da Silva Medeiros is 55 years old and has coronary artery disease, a serious heart condition the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) have identified as placing individuals at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19. He has had two stents placed in his main heart artery. He carries emergency medicine (nitroglycerin tablets) with him at all times in case of a heart attack. At the time he was detained on approximately February 25, 2020, Medeiros was scheduled to have heart surgery for post-incisional ventral hernia, to help protect him against the threat of a heart attack. Medeiros has also had multiple bouts of cancer. In 2016, he had surgery to remove his left kidney due to cancer, and in 2018 he had surgery to remove his left thyroid due to cancer. Additionally, Medeiros has been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. He takes several medications daily to address these health problems.
Jose Marcos Palacios Molina is 43 years old and has type-2 diabetes, a condition the CDC has identified as placing individuals at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19. He receives a daily injection of insulin and he also takes Metformin, a diabetes medication. Since his detention, Palacios has suffered from dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, and has lost 16 pounds.
Luis Orlando Durand Luyo is 40 years old and suffers from severe asthma, a condition the CDC has identified as placing individuals at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19. He takes the asthma medicine albuterol twice daily using an inhaler. His last asthma attack was in January 2020. Durand’s lung function may be further impaired by a stab would he suffered at about the age of 15, which was surgically repaired.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have not responded to a request for comment. This piece will be updated or an additional piece written if they do.