Immigrants, Prisoners, and Coronavirus

prison bars

Photo by Michael Coghlan, used under Creative Commons license

The Center for Disease Control’s warnings are clear: Wash your hands with soap and water, often and thoroughly. Avoid crowds. Keep a distance between yourself and other people.

The government is not following its own advice.

During this crisis, immigration courts remain open, crowding people into small rooms where they wait elbow to elbow for hours. Staying away is not an option: miss your court appearance and you get an order of deportation.

When immigration judges posted the coronavirus warning poster issued by the Centers for Disease Control, the Attorney General’s office ordered it removed. After huge public outcry, the Attorney General backed down and said the poster could stay.

On Thursday (March 12), the National Association of Immigration Judges asked that all non-detained cases be suspended during this crisis. They wrote:

“As you know, our non-detained master calendar dockets typically bring 50 or more respondents into each courtroom; on busy days, some of our Immigration Courts schedule 13 or more master calendar dockets per day, resulting in hundreds of respondents from all over the world visiting our courtrooms, waiting areas, and other public areas. Many of the respondents have recently traveled internationally or live in close contact with those who have. In addition, many master calendar dockets include family groups with small children, and, of course, many respondents are accompanied by friends, relatives, and attorneys. These master calendar dockets bring hundreds of people into close and extended contact with each other and with the Immigration Judges, interpreters, and court staff.”

The judges’ letter called the continuation of this schedule of crowded hearings “untenable and irresponsible.”  It is. But there’s worse.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also keeps about 38,000 immigrants crowded into detention centers, including private immigration jails and county jails across the country. These are people awaiting immigration court hearings, not people charged with crimes. Many are asylum applicants who already have passed the first test of showing credible fear of returning to their own countries. Before Trump, they were released to await their court hearings. About 99 percent showed up for all subsequent court dates. Now almost none are released. Immigrants in detention have already suffered through outbreaks of mumps, measles, flu, and other communicable diseases. Official government reports detailinadequate and incompetent medical care in immigrant detention centers.

Besides immigrants in detention, 2.3 million people are held in U.S. jails and prisons, the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Many are held for nonviolent offenses.

Jails and prisons are not healthy places to live. The basic necessities for fighting coronavirus—soap and hand sanitizer—are costly, in short supply, or actually banned.

“’Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control,’ said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex. ‘There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap.'”

Hand sanitizer with alcohol, recommended for use against coronavirus, is contraband in most prisons because of its alcohol content. Ironically, prisoners in New York have been put to work making hand sanitizer—for use outside the prison.

Many prisoners already suffer from a variety of health problems that make them more susceptible to the virus. Prisoners obviously cannot self quarantine. Coronavirus in a prison will spread quickly, affecting not only prisoners, but also correctional staff and people in the surrounding community.

“’The more people behind bars, the more transmissions you are going to have,’ said Josiah Rich, a Brown University epidemiologist….

“Rich said the number one change people can make to minimize this threat is simply to reduce the number of imprisoned people. Temporarily forgiving bail is one way. Another is to release low-level, older offenders, though it is unclear where they would be sent if they do not have close friends or family members to take them in.

“’In the best of scenarios, we would only hope to delay this,’ Rich, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, said. ‘And because we have so many ill people behind bars, it’s going to get there, it’s going to spread like wildfire.’”

Across the country, arts and sporting events are canceled. Museums have closed. Nursing homes and senior citizen residences have barred all visitors and imposed restrictions on communal gatherings. Colleges and universities are sending students home.

We know how to minimize risk. We know that protecting vulnerable populations protects all of us. It’s past time to act on what we know.

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet,, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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