Activists advocate for compassionate release of detainees at Pulaski County Detention Center

By Kallie Cox, News Editor

As of April 9, three individuals at the Pulaski County Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19 and Illinois activists are advocating for the compassionate release of detainees from the center.

The Southern Illinois Immigrant Rights Project has joined other activist groups across the nation to demand the compassionate release of vulnerable immigration detainees.

“We have been making calls, circulating petitions and writing to officials because of concerns among the crowded conditions in detention centers and jails and we have been asking for people to be released so that they can shelter at home or in appropriate community settings,” Becca Tally, chair of the Southern Illinois Immigrant Rights Project, said.

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Tally said in these types of facilities, people are held together in close quarters and are not able to practice the social distancing protocols. She said she has been hearing from individuals at the detention center that there is often a lack of masks or protective equipment.

“It may be difficult to wash hands and things like that as much as possible so when something is introduced, it’s very hard to prevent people from being infected by that,” Tally said. “Especially with what we know about COVID that people who even may not appear sick may be spreading the illness.”

Tally said it is vitally urgent that people are released from the center, especially those who are older or who have underlying medical conditions.

“Some of the people who have been detained have been made aware of the news, they’ve heard the news that there were confirmed cases there and they’re very frightened and asking for any help available before they are put in more danger, so the situation is really urgent,” Tally said.

Tally said the majority of those at the detention center have not been convicted of a crime, or if they have, it is at the lowest level of severity, like a civil offense. She said there are people in detention centers across the nation who are seeking asylum but can’t afford the bond to be released from custody.

“This has really been a matter of resource inequality that is keeping people in these dangerous situations,” Tally said.

The ACLU of Illinois is moving towards filing a lawsuit regarding vulnerable detainees throughout the state, according to spokesperson Ed Yohnka. Other law firms across the nation have started filing lawsuits demanding the release of vulnerable prisoners and detainees.

The National Immigrant Justice Center filed a lawsuit against the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, Illinois, to request the release of three vulnerable detainees and they were released as a result, according to a release.

(See more: here.)

“We believe that people who should not be in detention should be released safely and in accordance with public health guidelines,” Yohnka said. 

Yohnka said the ACLU of Illinois is actively moving towards filing some actions at the various facilities around the state where people are detained. 

“We are talking to clients that are somewhat complicated, we are talking to people in our national office, we are talking to our friends in NIJC and elsewhere but we are actively moving in that direction,” Yohnka said. 

Yohnka said in order to bend the curve, COVID-19 outbreaks will have to be controlled everywhere, including detention centers and jails.

“One of the things that we’re seeing is, whether it’s Cook County Jail or Pulaski County Jail, that when these outbreaks happen in these facilities where social distancing is impossible, where conditions are often not sanitary, that you just kind of have this rampant outbreak before you know it,” Yohnka said. “That’s what we’re really trying to address with these sorts of releases.”

Cindy Buys, Interim Dean of SIU’s Law School, said less than half of the people who are deported from the country have any criminal record and releasing them would not pose a danger to the public. 

“When congress enacted the immigration statute, it provided that a violation of some of the provisions, or most of the provisions of the immigration stature are not criminal offenses,” Buys said. “There are no criminal penalties; you don’t go into criminal court if you violate the statute.”

Buys said a large portion of those who are in the country without permission right now came to the U.S. lawfully but overstayed their visas. She said there is no criminal penalty for doing this and that it is classified as a civil violation.

Buys said compassionate release would be possible and that immigration law has a provision called “humanitarian parole,” which allows the executive branch to parole someone into the country.

“You could use this parole to say that a person is allowed to go and live with their family during the pandemic, to help with the social distancing and to help decrease the spread of the disease,” Buys said. “It would be done on a humanitarian ground for humanitarian reasons but the executive branch really has a lot of discretion to do that and how they do that.”

Buys has been to the Pulaski County facility before and is in charge of SIU’s Immigration Detention Center Project.

(See more: SIU law students aid detainees at Souther Illinois Detention Center).

“The Pulaski County facility has a little over 200 beds total in the facility and the vast majority of those beds, somewhere between 150-200 beds are normally occupied by immigration detainees,” Buys said. 

Buys said  there are normally five “pods,” five groups of people, in five different physical spaces. Within each of those spaces, there are approximately 25-30 people.

Buys said if one person were to get infected in a pod, it would be almost impossible to keep others from being infected because of the communal living space.

“They’re using the same facilities all day every day and that’s part of why it’s so concerning to have the immigration detainees there because it would be so hard to contain any kind of outbreak,” Buys said. 

Buys said she would advocate for release of immigrants who have preexisting conditions that put them at high risk.

“I think that that would be the humane thing to do so that they would be able to access the proper care that they would need,” Buys said. 

Father Bob Flanery, a pastor at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Carbondale, is part of a group of spiritual leaders in Southern Illinois who have been trying to set up a visitation program at the detention center. Since COVID-19, this group has shifted their focus towards advocating for compassionate release.

Flanery said those in the faith community are called to minister to the sick and dying, but they are also called to prevent sickness and dying when they can. 

“Our pro-life attitude [is] all God’s creation is sacred, that we help people that are going to be killed because of the confines of their situation,” Flanery said. “By putting all these people in detention, the numbers have grown and their safety and their well being is jeopardized because of that.”

Flanery said the golden rule of any religion is to do unto others as you would have them do to you.

“If we were in that situation, you and me, and we were in that confined situation and didn’t have a remedy for that, we’d want a compassionate way, especially if we’re not hardcore criminals and that kind of thing,” Flanery said.

Flanery said everyone is in God’s family regardless of their situation.

God meant us to care for one another and to try to help one another,” Flanery said. “Jesus and the old testament also speaks about visiting those in prison or correction centers or detention centers no matter what their situation is that they are part of God’s family and we need to take care of them and help them in their plight.”

The Daily Egyptian reached out to ICE at Pulaski County for a statement about what they are doing in regards to the compassionate release of detainees.

ICE said the agency has modified its enforcement posture, detention operations, and visitation practices to ensure that individuals in the agency’s custody and its employees remain safe. 

 “The agency has instructed its field offices to further assess and consider for release certain individuals deemed to be at greater risk of exposure, consistent with CDC guidelines, reviewing cases of individuals 60 years old and older, as well as those who are pregnant,” ICE said. “Additionally, efforts to identify other individuals who may be more vulnerable to COVID-19, based on risk factors identified by the CDC, other than age and pregnancy, are ongoing, based on the recommendations of CDC.”

According to the agency, ICE officers weigh a variety of factors, including the person’s criminal record, immigration history, ties to the community, risk of flight, and whether he or she poses a potential threat to public safety when determining who can be released.

 “ICE continues to re-evaluate all individuals in custody who make up vulnerable populations.  As of March 30, 600 detainees were identified as “vulnerable” and more than 160 have been released from ICE custody,” ICE said.

News Editor Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox.

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