Bristol County Sheriff’s Office settles lawsuit brought by immigrations detainees

Apr 11, 2021

A landmark class action lawsuit settled last week has secured the continued release of federal immigrations detainees from the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility on Faunce Corner Road.

Savino v. Souza, filed in March 2020, claimed that detainees in the facility were not adequately protected from Covid.

It resulted in a federal judge last year ordering the preliminary release of dozens of detainees while barring ICE from admitting new people to detention without court approval.

Others paid bond, obtained relief in their immigration cases, or were voluntarily released, ultimately reducing the number people held in the facility from 148 to seven.

If approved by a judge, the settlement would allow released detainees to remain quarantined at home. It would also provide the remaining seven detainees the option of transferring to another New England ICE facility.

The class action suit is believed to be the first lawsuit brought during the pandemic on behalf of all ICE detainees at a facility, as opposed to only individuals with certain medical risk factors, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The organization brought the lawsuit in conjunction with law firm WilmerHale, civil rights group Rights Behind Bars, and a team of students from the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School.

In a press release, the group called the effort “enormously successful at protecting class members’ health and well-being.”

WIRAC students said that all of the work for the plaintiffs was done pro bono.

The courage of [detainees] who spoke out about the danger they faced despite the risk of retaliation made this case possible,” noted Yale Law student Fernando Quiroz, who worked on the case. 

This case served as a template for similar facility-wide suits around the country that exposed ICE’s widespread mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“While Bristol is notorious for its poor conditions and officials’ civil rights abuses against individuals detained there, ICE’s failure to ensure the basic safety of those it incarcerates is certainly not limited to [Bristol County House of Correction] — or to the pandemic,” Quiroz stated, referring to a report by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that found the Sheriff’s Office violated detainees’ civil rights in using excessive force in an altercation at the facility on May 1, 2020.

Spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office Jonathan Darling commented, “The settlement recognizes that the [Sheriff’s Office] did nothing wrong and sets the stage for the ICE building to repopulate at full capacity.”

The agreement notes that the Sheriff’s Office and ICE “specifically disclaim any liability or wrongdoing whatsoever,” but are settling the lawsuit “to avoid further protracted litigation.”

“At the time this lawsuit was filed, no inmate or detainee had contracted Covid,” the Sheriff’s Office statement read. “Since the pandemic [began] in early March of last year, the Bristol County correctional facilities had complied meticulously with every directive and/or recommendation set out by the CDC or the Massachusetts Department of Public Health regarding disinfection and Covid prevention.”

Once the settlement agreement is approved following a fairness hearing on May 3, the order preventing ICE from admitting new detainees to the facility is set to expire.

But Quiroz stated the students’ belief that repopulating the facility “would set the stage for further harm to detained individuals and preserve the status quo of needless cruelty in immigration detention.”

He added that the availability of the Covid vaccine “does not preclude similar litigation in the future,” noting that the effort to protect detained individuals’ constitutional rights is not limited to the pandemic.  

According to Quiroz, many former detainees are also pursuing individual administrative damages claims from the facility, “especially those who were harmed” by sheriff’s officers during the May 1 incident.

Meanwhile Darling noted in the statement that “Bristol County remains proud of its efforts against the Covid epidemic and commends its officers and staff for their great efforts which resulted in the minimal effect Covid has had on the prisoners and staff.”