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With virus inside and outside its walls, Central Falls detention facility faces a class-action lawsuit

ACLU seeks the ‘conditional release’ of 70 immigration detainees from Wyatt Detention Facility

The Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I.
The Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. -- The Wyatt Detention Facility has become a hot spot within a hot spot, with 46 detainees and 12 staff members testing positive for the coronavirus, while the surrounding city of Central Falls suffers from the highest COVID-19 rate in the state.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a class-action lawsuit seeking the “conditional release” of 70 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees. And now a federal court judge has provisionally certified that class of immigration detainees.

“Central Falls has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the state, and in the middle of it you have this major outbreak,” ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Jared A. Goldstein said Friday. “This is an emergency. People's lives are at risk, including the lives of the staff at Wyatt and anyone who comes into contact with that facility.”

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The concentration of coronavirus deaths in Rhode Island nursing homes shows that congregate living and COVID-19 are a “deadly combination,” Deborah S. Gonzalez, also an ACLU lawyer, said.

“The immigrants being held there should not be subject to a death sentence,” she said. “Since ICE won’t release these detainees and prevent their possible death, we had no choice but to file this lawsuit.”

Wyatt, a nonprofit prison run by a quasi-public corporation, had no comment on the ACLU lawsuit, spokesman Christopher D. Hunter said.

But in a statement provided to the court, Wyatt detailed the steps it has taken to stop the virus’ spread. For example, Wyatt said it was conducting screenings of all detainees for virus-related symptoms, “including COVID-19 testing and a 16-day quarantine for all new detainees.” And it said it was creating a quarantine unit and converting 160 cells into negative pressure environments.

Despite those “best efforts,” Wyatt said it had its first positive test for COVID-19 on April 21, and that detainee was promptly placed in medical isolation.

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"Given that the Wyatt is a congregate setting much like nursing homes and hospitals, and the coronavirus spreads easily as a respiratory-based illness, we and [the state Department of Health] anticipated that we would have additional cases and are fully prepared to respond to these cases,” the statement read.

In a status report filed with the court on Thursday, Wyatt said it is now detaining 536 people, including 70 ICE detainees. Of the 405 detainees tested for the coronavirus, 46 have tested positive -- with 11 “cleared” and 35 “active cases” -- and 49 tests are pending.

Of the 310 staff members tested, 12 have tested positive -- with one “cleared” and 11 “active cases” -- and 26 tests are pending, Wyatt reported.

Goldstein contended that Wyatt waited far too long to react to the virus and was essentially “going on with business as usual” until late April.

He said detainees went on a hunger strike on April 4, demanding to know what Wyatt would do to protect them from the virus. Instead of providing answers, Wyatt put them on lockdown and punished the leaders of the hunger strike, he said.

Also, Goldstein said government lawyers initially dismissed fears of an outbreak at Wyatt as “pure speculation.”

“Now it is a major outbreak, and it is just irresponsible to be holding civil detainees in this setting,” he said. “We have to get people out of there before it’s too late.”

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The lawsuit says the only effective means of preventing the spread of COVID-19 is social distancing -- with people remaining at least six feet apart -- but that’s impossible at Wyatt.

Detainees are housed with cellmates in cells measuring about 5 feet by 9 feet, they eat together at small shared tables, and they share communal showers and telephones that are not disinfected between uses, the lawsuit claims.

The only way to avoid an “exponential COVID-19 outbreak” at Wyatt is to begin releasing detainees, the lawsuit argues.

Where would they go?

Goldstein said that in other cases, the court has ensured that detainees are released to locations where they can be monitored, possibly with GPS tracking, and remain under quarantine. That could include the homes of family members or nonprofit groups that provide housing for newly released inmates, he said.

Eventually, the detainees could return to ICE custody when it is safe, or they could be deported in a safe manner, Goldstein said.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy held a telephone conference with lawyers for both sides in the case.

After hearing arguments, she provisionally certified the class of 70 immigration at Wyatt, giving Wyatt and ICE lawyers until Tuesday to argue against final certification. The class would be represented by three detainees: Oscar Yanes, Gagik Mkrtchian, and Wendell Baez Lopez.

The judge also set dates for addressing plans to deport some of the 70 ICE detainees and whether the court should stop Wyatt from accepting new ICE detainees.

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Goldstein said ICE is planning to deport 16 of the 70 detainees, and while the ACLU is not opposing those deportations, it is trying to ensure they’re not endangered in the process by, for example, being sent to a Louisiana detention facility that’s facing a COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, the ACLU is requesting bail hearings seeking the release of the other ICE detainees.

The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU, Gonzalez and Goldstein, and lawyers from the firm Morgan Lewis.

Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, noted that Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia -- a 57-year-old man who had lived in the United States for four decades -- recently became the first person to die from COVID-19 while in immigration custody, at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility in San Diego.

“There is no doubt that we are facing a public health and humanitarian crisis if ICE does not release many more people immediately,” Cho said. “We urge the court to take swift action to mitigate the worst of the tragedy.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com