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Amid The Pandemic, Yale Lawsuit Against ICE Becomes A National Model

The immigration detention center at Bristol County in Dartmouth, Massachusetts
Jesse Costa/WBUR
The immigration detention center at Bristol County in Dartmouth, Massachusetts

Last week the Biden administration ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to close a detention facility in Massachusetts that has held many people from Connecticut. When ICE arrests immigrants here, they’re sent out of state because ICE has no jail beds here.

Most have ended up at the Bristol County House of Correction, where there have long been reports of inhumane conditions, overcrowding and poor sanitation. Following an incident during the pandemic, Massachusetts authorities found that Bristol violated detainees’ civil rights.

Now ICE has been ordered to end its contract with the jail and stop working with Bristol officers on immigration enforcement.

Yale Law School professor Mike Wishnie calls this an important step. Last year Yale’s Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic and the nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights sued ICE on behalf of immigrants at Bristol, alleging life-threatening conditions and imminent risk of contracting COVID-19. That class-action lawsuit was settled, and last week U.S. District Judge William G. Young gave his final approval.  

Wishnie spoke with Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson.

MW: I think the case was quite significant. It was the first class action for immigration detainees and the only effort at that time to seek release of everybody, not just the high-risk folks. At that time there were 148 people that were being held for ICE at Bristol County. It was the largest immigration detention facility in New England. And also the most notorious.

And what happened was the case was randomly assigned to Judge Young, a district court judge in Massachusetts. And he very quickly acted on the case. And he did several things that then became a framework that were followed by judges all over the country.

DO: Can you talk about the most important things he did?

MW: He wanted to consider, given the urgency of the situation, the threat of the pandemic, whether people should be released one by one just as an interim measure, pending a final decision of the lawsuit. And so he established a process by which he reviewed each person’s case one by one to decide whether someone could be safely released. And he began ordering the release of tens of people, then scores of people -- initially on very strict conditions of house arrest and electronic monitoring and very rigorous check-ins with ICE, a lot of conditions.

Over time as people demonstrated that they were following those rules, the judge came to relax some of those conditions so they weren’t quite as onerous. But initially back in March, April of last year, he began releasing people one by one under very strict conditions. And it worked. That is, he was able to de-densify the population of persons held in Bristol County, which of course was meaningful both to the people released to home confinement and to the people left behind because they were no longer so crowded in dormitory spaces sharing bathrooms and food and bunk beds with such a large number of people.

Also importantly, the court forbid ICE from adding new people to the jail because anyone new coming in would of course expose everybody, other detainees as well as jail staff, to great risk. By the time we settled the case there were only seven people who were still there down from 148.

DO: And you say that this approach was then adopted in other places around the country?

MW: Lawyers in other parts of the country began filing similar cases on behalf of everybody in confinement and seeking this kind of one-by-one review of people during pendency of the case. In cases in Northern California, Southern California, Florida, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Texas, I believe. I don’t remember all of them. But the result was hundreds, I think thousands of people were released by judges who used the same approach that Judge Young had pioneered.

So it turned out to be a very important case here in New England for Connecticut residents, Massachusetts residents who were detained in Bristol, but also it turned out to become a kind of model approach to the pandemic for immigration detainees, their advocates and judges around the country.

DO: So this case has settled. And the Biden administration has decided to order ICE to close Bristol. What does all this signal to you?

MW: So now the Biden administration has begun the process of shuttering abusive facilities. They have taken that first step. They have crossed the Rubicon. This cannot be the last. Of course there are many other facilities around the country that ICE has contracted with that also have a reputation for horrific mistreatment. And it takes a little while to make a decision like this. But now ... they’ve done so and they’ve taken that first step. They’ve severed ties also with Irwin, a facility in Georgia where there were gruesome medical procedures done to women there -- that was in the same announcement as Bristol -- now that they’ve severed those ties I hope that they can accelerate their process of doing the same for other sites around the country.

In a statement, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who is in charge of the Bristol County House of Correction, called the Biden administration's decision to end its contract with the jail a “political hit job” that puts people at risk.

The seven detainees who will stay behind bars for security reasons are being moved to other facilities.  

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public

Diane Orson is CT Public Radio's Deputy News Director and Southern Connecticut Bureau Chief. For years, hers was the first voice many Connecticut residents heard each day as the local host of Morning Edition. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. She is the co-recipient of a Peabody Award. Her work has been recognized by the Connecticut Society for Professional Journalists and the Associated Press, including the Ellen Abrams Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and the Walt Dibble Award for Overall Excellence.