The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is facing criticism after guards at a facility in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, called a local sheriff’s office to quell a protest from immigration detainees refusing to work over fears of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Immigration attorney Ira Akalay told Newsweek that immigration detainees held at the Bristol County House Of Correction and Jail complex had launched a labor “strike” on Monday in response to a lack of action in addressing their health and safety concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.
About a week before starting the strike, Akalay said detainees had met with officials to air their concerns about the pandemic.
“The concern was that they have had very poor sanitation to begin with, including having watered down soap. I’ve heard that so many times before, before all this happened,” he said. “They also don’t have anything to disinfect with and they all live in one room, with staff coming and going… Then, new transfers are also coming in from other jails.”
With limited access to sanitation and people regularly coming in and out of the facility without always being quarantined, Akalay said the immigration detainees are feeling “trapped and terrified” in detention amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“They’re very concerned about their personal safety. They’re feeling pretty much trapped and terrified,” he said.
The detainees, Akalay said, were assured that steps would be taken to address their concerns. However, roughly a week later, little had been done to improve the situation. So, Akalay said, immigration detainees “unanimously agreed that they would stop working.”
Starting Monday, the detainees refused to perform the regular duties, which include serving meals, laundry, and cleaning.
“There was some low-level reaction from the powers that be,” Akalay said. “They were given their dinners late, they weren’t allowed outside in the afternoon. Later, the TV was turned off. They were also forced to eat at their beds instead of at these little plastic tables that they have at the foot of their beds.”
The protest lasted until Tuesday afternoon, when one detainee wanted to wash their clothing, Akalay said. A fight broke out between the detainee and another detainee trying to dissuade him from breaking the strike, an altercation which led to guards to become involved, the immigration attorney said.
“What I’m told is that one of the detainees had words with him about the work strike and may have, you know, pushed him or you know something minor,” he said. “You have 60 men living in a room, so this can be an everyday incident.”
When the detainee who had wanted to do laundry told the guards about the incident, Akalay said they went to handcuff the second detainee. However, in this case, Akalay said, a guard at the facility also took the unusual step of calling the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office and asking Sheriff Thomas Hodgson to get involved.
Akalay said he had never seen the sheriff’s office get involved with a protest before, nor had any of the immigration detainees he had spoken with.
When they arrived, he said multiple detainees said at least one officer had been holding a weapon and pointing it at detainees, leaving them “completely terrified,” with some detainees trying to hide behind the plastic tables in the room.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Jonathan Darling acknowledged that Hodgson, accompanied by corrections officers, responded to “a work stoppage and minor protest in the ICE building on Tuesday.” One of the corrections officers, he said, “had a pepper ball gun for safety reasons.”
It was unclear whether the officer had pointed the pepper ball gun at detainees.
“The incident started when the detainees who were on the work stoppage assaulted another detainee who did not agree with the work stoppage,” Darling said. “When we removed the victim from the unit, the remaining detainees barricaded themselves behind tables and refused to come out. That’s why Sheriff Hodgson went to speak with them and deescalate the situation.
“He spoke with the group, accompanied by officers (one of which had a pepper ball gun) for security, had a constructive discussion with the detainees, and the detainees stopped the barricade after the discussion and returned to their normal day,” Darling said.
While, Darling said “no one was hurt and everything returned to normal in less than an hour,” he added that “these minor situations can escalate into bad situations at the drop of a hat, so thankfully this situation did not escalate.”
In a separate statement, an ICE spokesperson acknowledged that the agency was aware of the strike action. “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference,” they said. “ICE is monitoring the situation and coordinating closely with Bristol County to ensure orderly operations are maintained at the facility. “
Akalay said that detainees have started to return to their work duties, but maintain their fears of catching and spreading coronavirus at the facility.
Detainees in Dartmouth are not alone, with immigration detainees held in other parts of the country also speaking out and demanding to be released over fears of catching and spreading COVID-19. So far, four immigration detainees have tested positive for coronavirus, according to ICE.
The agency has confirmed two cases of COVID-19 among detainees in Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey, while one detainee in Essex County Correction Facility in Newark, New Jersey has tested positive, as well as a fourth held at the Hudson County Jail in Kearney, New Jersey.