Montgomery, Ala. June 17, 2020 – A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to implement a number of measures to protect detained people’s access to counsel in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) prisons amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The order requires DHS and ICE to increase telephone access and ensure at least one telephone or video tele-conferencing (VTC) console is available for every 10 detained individuals. The court also ordered that telephones, VTC systems, and other technology used to access legal representatives must be in proper working order and cleaned between each use, in compliance with the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) COVID-19 guidance. Additionally, DHS must create procedures for the confidential exchange of legal documents via electronic means, so as to diminish the risk of transmission.

The following statement is from Shalini Goel Agarwal, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC):

“Today’s ruling is a victory for people subjected to ICE’s horrific prison conditions. It’s also a rebuke of DHS’s shameful attempt to use this pandemic to worsen already intolerably restricted access to counsel. The Court solidly rejected ICE’s baseless arguments that current conditions are adequate. DHS and ICE have a history of flouting the Constitution unless and until they are forced to comply, and with today’s order they will be.  

“In the past few months, we’ve witnessed the deadly outcomes of prolonged confinement in ICE’s prisons. COVID-19 cases are spiking as ICE keeps thousands of people needlessly detained in inhumane conditions. Now more than ever, people need to be able to speak to their lawyers. Today’s order is a step in the right direction toward protecting detained individuals’ right to safe and adequate access to counsel.”

Attorneys filed the motion for temporary restraining order last month in SPLC’s lawsuit against DHS after finding the COVID-19 crisis to exacerbate existing representation barriers and unlawful practices at four of the country’s most remote immigration prisons in Louisiana and Georgia. 

The lawsuit, brought on by attorneys with the SPLC and the organization’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), was first filed in 2018 after they found detention centers in the South routinely failed to ensure constitutionally sufficient and reliable access to counsel.  Today’s order can be viewed here and the full memorandum opinion can be viewed here.