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Federal Detention Center’s leaders have lost the right to the benefit of the doubt

Don’t worry, say the officials at the Federal Detention Center in Batavia, we’re doing all the right things to protect our inmates from Covid-19, which thrives in such settings. Trust us. Everything is under control.

Perhaps, but that would be easier to accept if the Detention Center hadn’t already been associated with these types of problems, in which some inmates were allowed to languish for years without a hearing. Now they want the public to accept on faith that they are taking appropriate measures to protect those same inmates from Covid-19.

Sorry, but no. The leaders of that facility have forfeited the benefit of the doubt. Proof of diligence is required.

As a recent article by News staff writer Phil Fairbanks reported, advocates believe proper safety measures are being ignored, for the most part. When safety protocols are being adhered to, it is only in an ad hoc fashion, they say, with prisoners at greatest risk left to flounder.

The prisoner rights advocates fought for those measures, including single occupancy cells and the ability to bathe and eat in isolation. The orders by a federal judge made it so.

Or, should have made it so.

This is just the latest development in an already existing lawsuit. The action aims to turn the complaint into a class action suit on behalf of at least 100 detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They have a point in arguing that “ICE officials are the only ones who know how many medically at-risk people are in their custody,” as Bobby Hodgson, a lawyer for the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a statement. He continued that detention center officials’ decision to “continue jailing those people without proper protections” poses an “unacceptable risk of death and serious illness.”

The NYCLU and Prisoners Legal Services of New York requested that U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo “again intervene on behalf of detainees held by ICE.” Vilardo must be getting tired of the shenanigans stemming from mistreatment – in one case, from Homeland Security – of prisoners at the detention center.

Remember Terence Enoh? He was held for two years, just another person caught in the nasty practice of being denied a court review. There were 25 such cases last year. Enoh, a Cameroon native, initially represented himself and eventually found success after bypassing immigration officials and appealing directly to a federal judge in Buffalo.

Dozens of Batavia detainees have sought the court’s help. They argued against the government’s failure to give them a bond hearing, the first step in possibly regaining their freedom. They may or may not be entitled to that freedom, but what they are absolutely entitled to is an answer to the question.

In this latest Covid-related matter, the initial lawsuit was filed in March. It resulted in a court order requiring that detainees who are 65 or older or “medically at-risk” be given what they should have had all along: the protections recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They include social distancing, which has been adopted for more than a dozen detainees, but leaving lawyers to wonder about the others. That no deaths have occurred at the Batavia center does not mean there is no threat of death or illness.

Officials at the center claim they are taking proper precautions to “safeguard all detainees, staff and contractors …” If they are, in fact, taking steps such as placing individuals in alternatives to detention programs as well as monitoring and testing for Covid-19, then there is no case.

But “trust us” doesn’t suffice – not anymore. The Detention Center’s abysmal record of depriving inmates of their rights shows that its declarations need to be verified. It’s bad enough when inmates are denied the right to a hearing, but far worse if their lives are illegally being put at risk.

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