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Hunger Strikes and Imminent Outbreak: New Motion for Preliminary Injunction Seeks Relief as COVID-19 Chaos Consumes South Georgia Detention Center

In bid to protect lives from the ravages of COVID-19, SPLC attorneys file preliminary injunction in federal court to release medically vulnerable individuals

ATLANTA – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta (AAAJ) today filed a motion for preliminary injunction in their lawsuit seeking the immediate release of medically vulnerable individuals in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Folkston ICE Processing Center in Folkston, GA. 

The lawsuit was filed on April 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. After the Court denied an earlier motion for temporary restraining order, attorneys filed an amended complaint

Just as doctors, advocates and detained people themselves warned would be the case, ICE has failed to prevent catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19 in its detention centers across the country, and a preventable outbreak at Folkston now appears imminent. Since the initial filing last month, ICE continues to transfer people from other detention centers where COVID-19 is present into Folkston. Predictably, ICE reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 at the remote facility on May 4. 

“ICE already has blood on their hands,” said Gracie Willis, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “ICE’s insistence on keeping people confined in immigration jails is symptomatic of an immigration system rooted in racism and xenophobia. We are watching in real time what public health experts warned would unfold unless ICE released people en masse: Rapid transmission of COVID-19 in detention centers ill-equipped to care for human lives.” 

The motion requests the six petitioners be freed, emphasizing that their detention puts them at great risk and ICE cannot or will not comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and is unable to protect them from the dangers of COVID-19.

Desperate and with no other options, many detained people have courageously gone on hunger strike to draw attention to their situation.

“About 30 to 40 people from my block, including me, attempted to engage in a hunger strike to protest our continued detention during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said a Sri Lankan man in a declaration filed with the suit. After guards threatened to cut off the men's legal access for striking, the Sri Lankan man decided not to participate to avoid jeopardizing a scheduled legal visit. Still, others participated. It is not clear to what extent ICE has retaliated against the participants. 

While the agency has not revealed how many people at Folkston have been tested, of those in immigration detention who have been tested nationwide, a staggering 50 percent have tested positive. Earlier this week, the first death of a person in ICE custody from COVID-19 was confirmed in California. 

Despite the deadly consequences of continued confinement in light of the pandemic, ICE still subjects nearly 30,000 immigrants to civil detention. Among the detained population, there are thousands of medically vulnerable individuals, like the Sri Lankan man. The pandemic has unmasked the full extent to which ICE deprives people in its custody of even the most basic medical care. 

“When I was transferred to Folkston, I told the staff that I have tuberculosis, but they waited for more than six months before retesting me,” said the man. “Folkston not only forced me to suffer months without tuberculosis medication while in detention, but also put other detainees at risk for infection.” 

The motion further requests full compliance with the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance and a cease in unnecessary transfers into the facility. ICE recently began transferring people from South Florida detention centers where COVID-19 is already present to Folkston after a federal judge ordered the Florida facilities to reduce their populations due to the risk of COVID-19. 
The motion for preliminary injunction can be viewed here and the memorandum of law in support of the motion for preliminary injunction can be found here. Other filings and background on the case can be found here.