Protesters gathered outside the Strafford County detention center in Dover on Saturday to call for the release of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, held at the facility under a federal contract, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
About 100 people participated in the demonstration at the county jail. The protestors stayed in their cars to maintain safe social distancing, driving quietly in circles around the facility.
At least two Democratic state legislators were seen joining the “car rally.” Many participating vehicles bore signs with messages like “release them now” and “migration shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
Strafford County's is the only jail in northern New England that contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to hold immigrant detainees. That agreement dates to 2008.
Laura Aronson, with the New Hampshire chapter of the advocacy group Never Again Action, helped organize protest. The group also sent a corresponding petition with more than 500 signatures to Gov. Chris Sununu and other agencies.
“This, like any other locked facility, is a tinderbox,” Aronson said, “and if [COVID-19] spreads, there will be no controlling it and it will get out into the general community.”
There have been no publicly confirmed reports of the coronavirus among inmates at New Hampshire prisons. One worker at the state prison in Concord tested positive earlier this month.
Still, some nonviolent defendants at a high risk for infection have been temporarily released from jails in New Hampshire and elsewhere.
Protesters say they want Sununu to seek the same treatment for detained immigrants in Dover, allowing them to be sent home or housed by faith groups.
They also want any immigrant detainee who falls ill to be isolated in a healthcare facility rather than inside the prison.
“They’re essentially sitting ducks inside,” said Josie Pinto, the political director for New Hampshire Youth Movement and another participant in Saturday's protest. “We believe that folks that have been detained by ICE should be released and allowed to be with their families in this time of crisis.”
Chris Brackett, the superintendent of the Dover jail, came outside in a mask during the protest as another jail staffer directed traffic nearby. Bartlett says he was notified of the demonstration in advance and was happy to accommodate it.
Advocates have raised concerns about detainees’ access to sanitation products. While Brackett says the prison cannot accept donations of items like alcohol-based hand sanitizer or caustic products like bleach, he says other precautions are being taken.
“They have access to virucidal cleaning implements,” he says. “We provide all that stuff to the inmate population and they have the ability to clean.”
Brackett says the prison population has been “scanned” for COVID-19 symptoms twice. The facility is prepared to put people in isolation if they need to be monitored for potential symptoms of the virus.
He says some inmates have also volunteered to deep-clean the facility using personal protective equipment.
Staff have been required to wear masks since March 23 and are screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms.
Visitation at the jail has been sharply limited. Brackett says attorneys can still come in, but they and other visitors are encouraged to take advantage of video or no-contact visits.