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Wyatt Detention Facility reports first COVID-19 case among detainees, facility in lockdown

Positive test result, announced Tuesday, comes three days after medically vulnerable immigrants in ICE detention at Wyatt sue for release

An unidentified prisoner at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility has tested positive for COVID-19, according to a daily report sent from Daniel Martin, the facility’s warden, to United States Chief District Court Judge John McConnell Jr. ’80.

The prisoner is one of the 490 people currently being held at the facility under its contract with the United States Marshall Service, not one of the 79 undocumented immigrants held for pre-trial detention under its contract with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Central Falls facility is currently on lockdown, according to the report. Staff are conducting “contact tracing to determine further action in consultation with its medical staff and the Rhode Island Department of Health.” Christopher Hunter, Wyatt spokesman, declined to define the term “lockdown” in an email to The Herald. 

The news came just three days after attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and the National ACLU filed an emergency lawsuit seeking the immediate release of three immigrants detained at the Wyatt because their pre-existing medical conditions puts them at severe risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

The complaint, which names Martin, the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation and senior ICE officials as defendants, claims the plaintiffs’ detention during the coronavirus pandemic violates their constitutional rights and demands their immediate release. “Due 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,” the lawsuit reads, “Petitioners are virtually certain to become infected with COVID-19 if they remain detained.”

An ICE spokesman, John Mohan, declined to comment Wednesday afternoon on conditions in the Wyatt because the topic relates to active litigation, but wrote, “The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” in an email to The Herald.

ICE is actively consulting state and local public health partners, its own epidemiologists and other specialists to provide guidance for screening, monitoring and management of symptomatic individuals, Mohan wrote.

The Wyatt has developed protocols now in place for dealing with a positive COVID-19 test result, according to the report from Martin, including the ongoing lockdown. The unidentified detainee is in medical isolation and has been provided with a mask. To begin the contract tracing process, the infected detainee has been interviewed to determine who else they had recently been in contact with and which areas of the detention facility they had frequented.

Hunter, Wyatt spokesman, declined to comment on how many people the unidentified detainee is thought to have been in contact with before being placed in medical isolation.

The report was filed in response to an order from Chief Judge McConnell, who had directed Martin to file twice-weekly status reports “concerning the incidence of infection of COVID-19 at Wyatt and the measures undertaken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at Wyatt,” beginning April 20. 

The Wyatt reported that staff were aware of the positive case on Tuesday morning, the same day the report was filed. The facility is currently running at 75 percent capacity, according to Tuesday’s daily report. It is operated by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation.

To date, two other detainees and 18 staff members (as self-reported by staff) have been tested and received negative results, according to Tuesday’s daily report.

Public health experts and community advocates, in Rhode Island and across the country, have voiced concerns about the impact of the virus on detention and correctional facilities, warning that incarceration itself poses a public health risk because many safety precautions such as social distancing run up against the realities of carceral settings. 

On April 10, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, local activists in more than 200 cars drove around the Wyatt to protest reportedly unsanitary conditions inside the facility and called on Regional ICE Field Director Todd Lyons to release detainees before COVID-19 spread through the facility. 

The protest was planned by Providence-based coalition Alliance to Mobilize Our Resistance and the Boston and Providence chapters of Never Again Action, a Jewish-led immigrant rights movement. 

An online rally was held simultaneously with the car-based action, during which organizers from AMOR shared recordings of phone calls from detainees in the Wyatt. 

The Wyatt has long been embroiled in a series of controversies for its treatment of detainees and has faced increased scrutiny since renewing its contract with ICE last year. The Rhode Island ACLU previously sued the Wyatt in 2009 after 34-year-old Hiu Lui “Jason” Ng died in its custody, The Herald previously reported. According to the lawsuit, Ng had suffered “cruel, inhumane, malicious and sadistic behavior” while incarcerated there.

And concerns over health and safety persist today. 

The lawsuit seeks the release of three individuals — Adriano da Silva Medeiros, Jose Marcos Palacios Molina and Luis Orlando Durand Luyo — all of whom have a condition the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified as placing individuals at high risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19: coronary artery disease, type-2 diabetes and severe asthma, respectively. 

“The ACLU is filing these cases around the country because, for our clients, a COVID-19 infection would likely be a death sentence,” Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a press statement announcing the lawsuit.

“Releasing people from detention is critical to flattening the curve and avoiding a humanitarian disaster,” she added. 

In a press release published on March 18, ICE said it would prioritize enforcement efforts for immigrants with criminal convictions and use discretion to delay enforcement against most other immigrants “as appropriate.” 

According to the lawsuit, new people have been detained at the Wyatt in recent weeks without any quarantine period, including the current cellmates of both Petitioner Medeiros and Petitioner Palacios. “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,” the lawsuit adds. 

The emergency lawsuit further describes “unhygienic conditions” at the Wyatt, including communal showers that are not cleaned between uses and surfaces in the common areas which are cleaned infrequently. “No disinfectant is available to clean the shared telephones that provide the detainees their only means to stay in contact with loved ones,” according to the lawsuit. 

“In desperation to protect themselves,” the lawsuit reads, “detainees have put their socks over the phones in hope of protecting themselves.”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.


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