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Applauding Release of Prisoners in Ohio Due to Coronavirus Threat, ACLU Calls on Officials Nationwide to Do the Same

"In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances."

The ACLU called on ICE to release elderly and medically vulnerable immigrants from a detention center in Tacoma, Washington on Monday to avoid a coronavirus outbreak in the facility. (Photo: Customs and Border Protection)

The ACLU called on prisons and detention centers throughout the U.S. to release high-risk and elderly inmates on Monday and applauded an Ohio county court for ordering the release of hundreds of prisoners to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

After a special Saturday morning session, the Cuyahoga County Court in Ohio ordered the release of inmates from the county jail who were at risk for becoming very ill or dying if they contract COVID-19, the respiratory disease which has infected more than 4,100 people in the U.S. as of press time.

The court settled some cases with some people who had pled guilty to crimes and released others into the community on house arrest.

"The goal of this is to protect the community and the safety of the inmates," Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan told News Channel 11 in Ohio.

Calling mass incarceration "a clear public health risk," the ACLU urged other states, counties, and cities to follow Ohio's lead.

Earlier this month, Iranian officials released 70,000 inmates from prisons to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in the country's criminal justice system. 

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Advocates for the release of prison populations say that overcrowding in U.S. prisons and immigration detention centers as well as the poor conditions in the facilities make outbreaks increasingly likely, as the disease continues to spread.

On Monday, the ACLU joined with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) in suing ICE on behalf of immigrations detained at Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, near the epicenter of the first COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

"Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission," Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement. "In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear."

The agency must be proactive in releasing inmates who are most likely to become seriously ill if they contract the disease, the groups said, including those with compromised immune systems, heart disease, and lung disease.

"If it waits to react to worst case scenarios once they take hold," Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP, said of ICE, "it will already be too late."

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