CASPER — The ACLU last week asked Wyoming officials to call on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to temporarily cease raids used to deport undocumented immigrants. The request, made in an open letter addressed to Gov. Mark Gordon and prison officials, comes as part of what the Wyoming chapter of the civil liberties organization calls a necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spread rapidly in jails and prisons elsewhere but has not yet been linked to a jail or prison facility in Wyoming.
An ACLU spokeswoman said by phone Wednesday that incarceration of people via the Department of Homeland Security’s investigative agency, ICE, could quickly lead to spread through any of a number of rural jails in Wyoming.
Spread of the novel coronavirus there would quickly overwhelm available health resources, said Sabrina King, the spokeswoman.
The governor’s office said by email Monday morning that Gordon has not been in contact with ICE, noting that the federal agency is not under the governor’s oversight. Michael Pearlman, the governor’s spokesman, said that the office was not aware of any recent raids or enforcement actions, but said that does not mean they are not occurring.
ICE detainees are frequently held in Wyoming’s county jails as they’re transported to larger facilities, like a private immigration jail in Aurora, Colorado, that are dedicated solely to people held in advance of administrative deportation proceedings.
It is during the transport process – during which a single person can be moved between multiple jails — that arrival and departure of incarcerated people and federal agents can increase the probability of transmission of COVID-19 to a particular facility’s population, said King.
Jails located along Interstate 80 and interstate 25 are common waypoints for ICE detainees being taken to larger facilities out of state, said King by phone Wednesday.
Were a jail in one of Wyoming’s more rural counties to experience an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, King said, local medical resources would be quickly overwhelmed.
The Denver Post reported last week that an administrative ICE staffer in an Aurora, Colorado, private immigration jail tested positive for COVID-19.
On the same day, the Department of Justice announced that the immigration court located in the same facility and that hears those inmates’ cases would close.
The ACLU’s Wednesday letter also called for state officials – including Wyoming Department of Corrections brass, to whom the letter was also addressed – to develop a comprehensive plan in conjunction with the Health Department to prevent a potential COVID-19 outbreak in state prisons.
In its letter, the ACLU called for education of staffers and inmates on techniques designed to stem spread of the disease, as well as a plan to ensure that prisons remain functional if large numbers of guards are required to stay home sick and safely housing sick inmates without resorting to prolonged and widespread lockdowns.
Facilities that have suspended visitation – or that do in the future – should provide access to video calls and eliminate charges for phone and video calls so that prisoners are still able to maintain contact with family and friends, the letter says.
Attorneys’ phone calls should not be monitored.
The letter calls specifically for prisoners to be educated on the importance of “social distancing to the extent they can.”
King said by phone Wednesday that limited space in Wyoming’s prisons – which, due to difficulty maintaining staffing levels and in combination with historically high incarceration rates, are mostly full or close to it – means prisoners will likely not be able to easily observe Centers for Disease Control recommendations that ask people to maintain physical distance from one another.