Rising tensions at Dartmouth ICE facility as detainees strike

Mar 30, 2020

This article has been updated to include information on the strike and the response from Sheriff’s officers.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainees at a North Dartmouth facility have been on strike since Monday over concerns about their risk of contracting coronavirus due to “unsafe” conditions, as described in a lawsuit filed on March 27.

On Tuesday, after work stoppages in which detainees refused to do laundry, serve food, and clean the facility, Bristol County Sheriff’s officers reportedly entered the facility with weapons drawn, although Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jonathan Darling called the claims “greatly exaggerated.” One of the officers was holding a pepperball gun, he said.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of ICE detainees against Bristol County and federal officials, alleges that those in the facility are at “imminent risk” of contracting coronavirus and requests their release.

Detainees allege in the lawsuit that they are being held in “unsafe” conditions including confinement “in close proximity, without adequate soap, toilet paper, and other daily necessities”, admission of new inmates without testing or screening for illness, and denial of access to testing and medical care.

The court document also describes plaintiff Maria Savino as suffering from asthma, and therefore at “high risk for severe illness”.

“Most, if not all, of the allegations in the lawsuit are just completely untrue,” stated Darling. “Things like, we bring in people with no health screenings, they don’t get toilet paper, there’s no soap — all these things are just complete lies.”

“I would describe the lawsuit as frivolous,” he added.

Attorney Ira Alkalay, who often visits the facility as detainees’ legal representation — and who has submitted an affidavit for this particular case — had previously observed that crowded living conditions could pose a health risk for both detainees and the wider community. “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.”

More recently, he claimed that a few incidents at the facility were “really concerning,” including one alleged incident in which an ICE detainee spent three days in the medical wing with people who had come in from outside, before being sent back to the ICE facility.

A petition sent to the sheriff as well as various state and federal agencies on March 18 from 51 ICE detainees in Unit B of the facility described the population as “panicking” and “in fear for [their] life”.

At a hearing on March 30, US District Court Judge William Young asked that ICE refrain from transferring detainees to the Dartmouth jail pending the outcome of the suit. Another hearing will take place on April 2.

Darling stated that there is no inmate, staff member, or detainee at the facility who has shown any symptoms of coronavirus, and that every inmate and staff member coming into the facility is screened for illness.

“We suspect that there are some outside political groups...using the coronavirus to push their political agenda,” he added.

The call to release those in the ICE detention center comes as jails across the country, including in New York and Chicago, are releasing inmates to slow the spread of the virus through the prison system.

But Sheriff Hodgson noted in a statement released on March 19 that he believes releasing inmates is the wrong approach.

“You know what’s not in the best interest of public safety? Letting hundreds of people that were either convicted of a crime and are serving their sentence, or are accused of committing a crime and ordered held behind bars by a judge, walk out the front door in the middle of a public health emergency,” the sheriff’s statement read.

He went on to note that “currently, inmates have more immediate access to medical care than the average citizen in the community.”