ACLU sues to reduce Calif. jail population, freeze ICE transfers
As of Monday, 176 prisoners within jurisdiction of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and 120 employees had tested positive for COVID-19
By Joe Nelson
San Bernardino County Sun
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. — The American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits against Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Attorney General Xavier Becerra demanding they reduce jail populations and freeze all ICE transfers amid the coronavirus threat.
The lawsuits, filed Friday in the state Supreme Court, allege violation of the Eighth Amendment that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” against prisoners and the 14th Amendment that guarantees due process rights.
“It is not just those confined to jails, detention centers, and youth facilities who are in danger,” said Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, in a statement. “Once the virus gets inside, the regular movement of staff and visitors in and out means that walls and razor wire can neither slow nor stop the viral spread to communities at large.”
As of Monday, 176 prisoners within jurisdiction of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and 120 employees had tested positive for COVID-19. There have been 317 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among those in ICE custody, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE transfers ‘inhumane’
“Up and down the state, California’s jails and prisons are continuing to voluntarily transfer individuals to ICE custody in the midst of the pandemic, even though they are not legally required to do so,” according to one lawsuit, which described the state’s continued transfers of immigrants to ICE during the pandemic as “cruel and inhumane,” defying “every effort this state has already made to ebb the spread of the lethal COVID-19 virus.”
“By transferring individuals to ICE custody, California agencies are delivering the individuals in their care to dangerous conditions of confinement in ICE’s five detention centers in California,” the lawsuit said.
The other lawsuit regarding conditions at jails and juvenile facilities argues, “Outbreaks at local jails and juvenile facilities threaten to tax the broader community’s health care system beyond capacity. This impending viral explosion — imminently likely to occur in most, if not all, of California’s 58 counties — will directly impact all California residents, including correctional staff, their families, and theirrespective communities.”
The ACLU is seeking an emergency court order, no later than May 4, to release a “sufficient” amount of inmates and wards at county jails and juvenile detention facilities so they are in compliance with CDC and public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including appropriate social distancing.
The ACLU also is seeking a moratorium on all transfers from jails and prisons to ICE detention facilities.
“A uniform, statewide moratorium on transfers to ICE is necessary to immediately protect the rights and lives of California residents,” according to one lawsuit.
Early release started in March
On March 24, Newsom announced steps were already being taken to halt the intake and/or transfer of inmates and youth into the state’s 35 prisons and four youth corrections facilities for 30 days, with an option to extend the ceasing of transfers, if needed. Additionally, Newsom last month authorized the early release of 3,500 inmates to help alleviate jail and youth detention facility overcrowding during the pandemic.
The ACLU, however, maintains prisoners are still confined in close quarters and more needs to be done.
“While the California Judicial Council has made some progress to reduce jail populations, these steps simply have not been large enough or fast enough to reduce the looming threat of exponential spread of COVID-19 in the state’s jails, juvenile facilities, and surrounding communities,” according to one of the lawsuits.
Lacking infrastructure for physical distancing and without “vigilant hygiene,” the state’s jails and prisons will become “petri dishes for rampant spread of the virus” and the “epicenter of the pandemic.”
The Attorney General’s Office on Monday deferred comment to the Governor’s Office, which is the attorney general’s client in the litigation.
“This Administration has been clear on our stance against abuses in immigration detention centers. We call on the Department of Homeland Security to use the administrative discretion it has under federal law to work with public health authorities to implement appropriate actions to protect individuals in its custody, staff and local communities,” said an email from Vicky Waters, press secretary for Newsom.
©2020 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.)