Activists say crowded ICE facility could put community at risk during pandemic

Mar 22, 2020

This article has been updated to include comments from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office.

Organizations and activists are sounding the alarm due to crowded conditions at a Dartmouth ICE detention facility, which they say could spread coronavirus and put pressure on local hospitals.

The detention facility holds people who are awaiting deportation proceedings with the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.

Ira Alkalay, an attorney who often visits clients at the Bristol County ICE facility on Faunce Corner Road, believes that the living conditions there may be placing the entire community at risk.

He has said that with 66 beds just three feet apart in one room, the CDC-recommended six feet of social distancing is nearly impossible.

“If and when the virus is introduced, it could spread very very quickly,” he said. “It is very likely that it will overrun the local health care system.”

Alkalay is quick to praise the professionalism of the workers there.

“I don’t want anything I say to be taken as a criticism of the people who work there,” he said. “They are very cordial, very respectful, and very helpful. Always.”

But he is concerned with what he sees as a potential health emergency.

“This is actually a larger public health issue waiting to happen,” he said. If local hospitals are flooded with ailing ICE detainees, it could mean delayed or inaccessible services for everyone in the surrounding communities.

In a statement from the Bristol County for Correctional Justice and other organizations raising awareness of the issue, Alkalay said that it “should concern everyone.”

He advocated for releasing detainees with underlying medical issues who otherwise pose little or no risk. 

“Many detainees do not have criminal convictions,” he noted. “Some have asked for voluntary departure, but are now essentially trapped in the facility indefinitely” due to closed borders.

“There is no valid reason whatsoever to put the entire community at risk,” Alkalay stated.

A spokesperson from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office noted that staff are well versed in mitigating the spread of disease in crowded detention facilities.

“Social distancing is difficult and many times impossible in any jail or prison in any county or state,” said Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Jonathan Darling. “It’s just the reality in corrections, something our staff of professionals knows a lot about — much more than the political activist groups who are pushing out this news release and are using the Covid outbreak to push their political agendas while the nation is in the middle of a public health crisis.”

“We’re doing the best we can to prevent Covid from entering the facility,” he added. “Currently, there are no inmates, detainees or staff with Covid or showing symptoms of Covid.”

The ICE facility is currently holding 107 detainees in two separate wings.

Measures taken by the Sheriff’s Office to prevent the spread of coronavirus include suspending the volunteer program, restricting visitation to only essential visitors, screening everyone entering the facility — including workers and essential personnel — for fever and illness, and sanitizing all transport vehicles as well as rails, handles, and doorknobs within the facility on a daily basis.

Other community advocates also voiced their concerns with conditions at the ICE facility and Covid-19.

“The Greater Southeast Massachusetts Labor Council is concerned about the conditions of detainees, as well as employees at the Dartmouth prison,” said Lisa Lemieux, President of the Labor Council. “Reports of overcrowding and potentially sick guards indicate that there is a great threat of the coronavirus spreading not just inside the jail, but in the greater community, as workers come in and out of the facility.”

“These reports must be investigated immediately, and if found to be valid, detainees must be removed,” said Rafael Pizarro of the Bristol County for Correctional Justice. “Guards, food service personnel, medical personnel and others enter and leave the jail regularly, so there is a public safety issue here.”

Other organizations raising concerns about the issue include the Community Economic Development Center, the Immigrant Support Network, the New Bedford NAACP, and the Coalition for Social Justice.