Community calls for Humanitarian Response to COVID outbreak at Federal Detention Center

BATAVIA, NY –A second COVID-19 outbreak is creating a public health crisis inside the Buffalo Federal Detention Center and the failed response of ICE threatens not only the detainees, but also the surrounding community. At least 26 people are confirmed to be infected, with 180 still awaiting test results, in a facility that holds approximately 250 people.

One detainee has been on a hunger strike for ten days and a second one is on day six, calling for an end to the cruelty of detention, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. Mitigation is impossible in a detention center, and staff are not required to be tested. The detention center does not have adequate medical staff or facilities to protect people from COVID-19; even before the pandemic, inadequate medical care was a frequent complaint.

Community and faith leaders spoke in Buffalo on Tuesday in support of the hunger strikers, repeating their calls for detainees to be released for their own safety, and to stop another outbreak in Western New York.

“Both we as a community but also our Federal government has the moral imperative, the opportunity, and the practical means and resources to safely and supportively release people into the care of community, and we believe that is is in the interest of public health to do so.” said Jennifer Connor, Executive Director of Justice for Migrant Families WNY.

ICE, at the direction of Field Director Thomas Feeley, has employed solitary confinement as standard medical practice at the detention center since March of 2020. Whether a person requests medical care, needs to quarantine, or decides to partake in a hunger strike, they are placed in solitary confinement. ICE’s attorney, US Attorney Adam Khalil, specifically cited fear of solitary confinement as the reason people did not report symptoms earlier, leading to the outbreak.

“They don’t need to be locked up until an immigration decision. This is a justice issue as well as a health issue,” stated Rev. John Long, Presbyterian minister in Buffalo and immigrant rights advocate.

Transfers between detention facilities with known COVID outbreaks have continued and conditions have not changed enough within the facility since the first outbreak. In the units where the COVID outbreak started, there are still many medically vulnerable people.

Genesee County resident and member of Rochester Rapid Response Network Mary Rutigliani said, “Batavia is a crossroads between Western New York and the Finger Lakes Region. We cannot pretend that ICE Field Office Director Thomas Feeley’s unwillingness to test staff puts our whole region in danger because of COVID’s asymptomatic spreading. I’m worried for our rural health care systems and the families of those working in the facility, in addition to those in the facility. The only way to stop the spread is through safe, supported release that the hunger strikers’ demand.”

“Every day, the choice of life or death is set before us. Every day, the choice to do what is right and just is set before us” concluded Reverend Nancy Rosas, pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke United Church of Christ. “We are called to love and care for our neighbors, all of our neighbors, including our migrant neighbors is to release them to the care, health and safety that they and our community need and deserve.”