April 17, 2020

Medically Vulnerable Immigrants in “Notorious” Mississippi ICE Facility File Emergency Petition for Release 

COVID-19 Could Be “Death Sentence” Due to Unsafe Conditions

NATCHEZ, MISSISSIPPI – Seven medically vulnerable people currently held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez have filed an emergency petition for release, citing their severe risk of contracting coronavirus and developing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms. They are represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIP-NLG), and the MacArthur Justice Center.

The Adams facility is notoriously overcrowded, unhealthy, and lacks adequate medical facilities or expertise, and has reported that six detained people and one staff person have tested positive for COVID-19. The complaint and accompanying emergency motion for release filed yesterday warn that the near-certainty of rapid spread in this already unsafe facility renders the continued detention of these individuals a potential death sentence for a civil immigration violation.

“I am very worried about my safety with the coronavirus going around because of my multiple health conditions,” said Leyanis Tamayo Espinoza, who is detained at Adams County Detention Center. “I am already losing a lot of weight, retaining a lot of liquid and getting inflamed, suffering from chronic fevers, and not getting access to adequate care. Because of this, I fear that if the coronavirus gets in the jail, then I may die.”

According to expert declarations filed by Tulane University and Yale public health experts, it is impossible for the detention facility to comply with CDC guidelines around social distancing, quarantine, and treatment, and the Adams facility’s already inadequate medical unit will inevitably be overwhelmed. The plaintiffs themselves report that the detention center has provided those detained with little information about coronavirus, including guidelines for preventing it; that they share common areas with up to 120 others, with only a handful of showers, and phones; and that staff do not consistently wear masks or gloves. Some of the people being detained do not have access to soap. Given the alarming increase in new cases at Adams –  on Monday, the facility reported one case, and on Wednesday, six – attorneys say it is reasonable to suspect that a widespread outbreak posing grave risk to detained people is inevitable. Advocates called the situation a “ticking timebomb.”

“Forcing people with underlying health problems to remain locked up in the Adams County Detention Center during this pandemic is like throwing someone who can’t swim into the Mississippi River and hoping they get lucky enough to wash up on a sandbar before they drown,” said Cliff Johnson, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “It’s reckless –  and the consequences could very well be lethal. All we’re asking is that our clients be given a fighting chance to avoid infection and the complications that they would suffer due to their already compromised health conditions.”

“This crisis has highlighted the degree to which immigrants are unsafe in detention,” said Sirine Shebaya, Executive Director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. “Too many people languish in awful conditions for months and years while awaiting resolution of their immigration cases. Especially at a time like this, ICE should routinely be releasing people with medical conditions, and should generally be working to reduce the overuse of detention in the immigration system.”

The detained plaintiffs report serious health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, diabetes, bacterial infections, chronic fevers, malnutrition, epilepsy, hepatitis, and otherwise severely compromised immune systems. Attorneys say coronavirus has exacerbated already dire conditions in ICE facilities.

“This case is part of a broader effort to expose the horrid conditions in ICE detention facilities as well as prisons and jails around the country,” said Ghita Schwarz, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Imposing avoidable illness and death on people in detention is cruel, arbitrary, unlawful, and wrong.”

The complaint filed last night argues that the risk of severe illness or death for a civil immigration violation—due to grossly inadequate sanitation and healthcare, along with the impossibility of following CDC guidelines in such over-crowded conditions—violates constitutional protections ensuring adequate care and preventing deliberate indifference to obvious medical risks.

Co-counsel in the case are Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Jeremy Jong in New Orleans, and R. Andrew Free in Nashville, Tennessee.

The case is Tamayo Espinoza v. Witte and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Mississippi.

For more information and to read the filings, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.