The Lead

Federal judge in Harrisburg rules ICE must release people at high risk for COVID-19

By: - March 31, 2020 2:59 pm

A federal judge in Harrisburg ruled Thursday in favor of releasing 10  people being held by federal immigration authorities in three detention facilities across Pennsylvania. 

According to a statement from the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, “all of the people who filed the lawsuit are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their age or medical conditions or both. 

“The court determined that ICE cannot keep elderly and medically vulnerable people safe and, thus, must release them,” Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said in a statement.

The decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones comes just a day after criminal justice advocates in Philadelphia coordinated a drive-by protest, calling for the release of inmates due to COVID-19 concerns. 

COVID-19 in Philly: Criminal justice advocates mount drive-by-protest calling for mass release of inmates

COVID-19 has already made it’s way to the state’s prison system with the first case confirmed at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on Sunday. 

The lawsuit originally included 13 people in immigration detention, but ICE released three of them in recent days. The remaining ten plaintiffs have been detained in county facilities in York, Clinton, and Pike counties.

Jones concluded the opinion by saying, “(S)hould we fail to afford relief to Petitioners we will be a party to an unconscionable and possibly barbaric result. Our Constitution and laws apply equally to the most vulnerable among us, particularly when matters of public health are at issue. This is true even for those who have lost a measure of their freedom. If we are to remain the civilized society we hold ourselves out to be, it would be heartless and inhumane not to recognize Petitioners’ plight.”

Lawyers for the ACLU said this ruling will have an impact on other detention centers across the country as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise. 

“It sends a strong message to ICE field offices around the country,” Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project said. “Now is the moment to release people who are at risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19.”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.