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Judge orders Snow Hill detainees’ release amid COVID-19

A federal judge Thursday ordered the release of two Worcester County Detention Center detainees after discovering a third detainee had exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 virus, information the jurist said was known but not disclosed to the court by either jail personnel or U.S. immigration officials holding the detainees.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang said the continued detention of Angel Guzman Cedillo and William Kemcha at the Snow Hill jail would place their health in jeopardy in violation of their constitutional right to due process and to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

Chuang’s order came a month after he rejected a similar call for the men’s release, saying then that the threat to their health was speculative as the virus had not reached the jail. But Chuang stated Thursday that the threat was in fact very real as a third detainee had by that time developed a deep cough, told jail officials that his chest and lungs were hurting and was placed in 14-day quarantine.

That illness information should have been disclosed to the court before Chuang’s April 3 rejection of the men’s initial bid for release or at least in the month since his decision, the judge wrote in a memorandum opinion Thursday. He criticized the immigration and jail officials for their “likely deliberate indifference to inmate health and safety.”

Chuang also took exception to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s statement prior to his April 2 decision that there were no suspected COVID-19 cases in the jail – a statement the judge said “proved to be demonstrably false.”

ICE and the jail’s “withholding of this information and failure to correct the record on this point either before or after the court ruled on the first motion (in April) raises significant doubt whether WCDC will reveal suspected cases when they arise so as to facilitate proper testing and responsive measures to protect the detainee population, or whether it will conceal suspected cases in the future and take no action, at substantial risk to the detainee population,” Chuang wrote.

The judge rejected WCDC’s defense that — though the jail’s doctors suspected COVID-19 — the ill detainee’s condition need not have been reported to the court because he was not very feverish and his symptoms had subsided.

“By having unilaterally adopted and applied such a rule, under which WCDC will not test individuals whose symptoms otherwise cause them to be labeled by WCDC’s own medical staff as ‘suspected COVID-19,’ WCDC has shown that it is willing to disregard a known excessive risk to inmate health and safety,” wrote Chuang, who sits in the federal courthouse in Greenbelt.

“Furthermore, respondents’ argument that WCDC was not required to test (the ill detainee) because his symptoms had subsided by the time the court issued its (April) order reveals that WCDC’s interest was in doing the minimum amount required by the court’s order, or in avoiding learning whether the coronavirus had entered the facility because of the obligations that such knowledge would bring, rather than in acting to safeguard individuals inside the facility,” Chuang added.

The Worcester County government issued a statement Friday in support of WCDC Warden Donna Bounds and the steps the facility has taken to ensure the health and safety of detainees, including their receipt of a complete medical screening and a mask upon arrival. They also spend their first 14 days housed in a single cell. Any detainee with an elevated temperature is moved to the medical housing area and monitored by medical staff until cleared, the county stated.

The ill detainee was “completely isolated in accordance with the jail’s procedures and his symptoms resolved,” the county stated, adding decisions on testing COVID-19 are made by the jail’s health care provider in consultation with the county’s health department.

“While we respect the court and share its concerns about COVID-19, we do not agree with the outcome,” the county stated. “The jail takes the health and safety of inmates, detainees, and staff very seriously. It is unfortunate that this ruling does not reflect that care.”

The Maryland U.S. attorney’s office, which represented ICE and Bounds in district court, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.

Guzman Cedillo was being held at WCDC on an alleged immigration violation; Kemcha was being detained pending removal to his native Camaroon after being adjudged as having overstayed his student visa, according to the opinion.

Under Chuang’s order, the two men will be transferred to home detention, where they will be self-quarantining for 14 days and monitored by ICE. The court is not requiring the men to post bond while they are released.

Guzman Cedillo and Kemcha were represented by several civil rights law groups, including the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU of Maryland.

“We are delighted for our clients, who have fought long and hard for their health and safety and can finally be safe from harm,” Sirine Shebaya, NIPNLG’s executive director, said in a statement Friday. “But as COVID-19 continues to spread through detention centers like wildfire, we won’t forget all those who are left behind. One facility at a time, one state at a time, we will continue our fight in Maryland and across the country to seek release of all who are medically vulnerable and who continue to be in unsafe congregate environments at this time.”

The case is Angel Guzman Cedillo and William Kemcha v. Donna Bounds et al., Civil Action No. TDC-20-0780.

Chuang’s order followed his similar directive last week ordering an ICE detainee to be released from the Howard County Detention Center after a nurse tested positive for COVID-19. Mauricio Coreas was also represented by the civil rights groups.

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