177 Livingston Street 7th Floor Brooklyn, NY 11201 (718) 254-0700 info@bds.org



March 27, 2020

CONTACT: Daniel Ball, 203-213-9303 dball@bds.org 



Federal Judge in Southern District of New York Finds Detention Under Unsafe Conditions was Unconstitutional; Holds ICE Accountable for Failure to Consider Release for People Most at Risk.

(NEW YORK, NY) – Last night, Judge Analisa Torres ordered the immediate release of ten immigrants detained by ICE in Hudson, Bergen, and Essex County Correctional Facilities, after Brooklyn Defender Services filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Southern District of New York, seeking their release from ICE custody because of ICE’s inability to protect them during the COVID-19 public health crisis. The order finds that ICE has been and continues to be deliberately indifferent to serious medical needs and ignores the threat caused by COVID-19 “that will likely cause imminent, life-threatening illness.”

Andrea Saenz, Attorney-in-Charge, New York Immigrant Family Unity Project at Brooklyn Defender Services, issued the following statement:

“This is the first federal court in the nation to find that ICE is showing deliberate indifference to the safety of detained people who have medical conditions putting them at high risk if they contract COVID-19 – so much that their detention is likely unconstitutional and they must be immediately released. We felt like we had no time to lose, with ICE ignoring our requests for release, and brought as many clients as we could to the attention of the federal court as fast as we could, asking them to hold ICE accountable. This was a huge victory, but we’re going to keep fighting to free them all.”

Brooke Menschel, Civil Rights Counsel at Brooklyn Defender Services, issued the following statement: 

“By keeping people detained, despite the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus and specific vulnerabilities, the government is putting people’s lives at stake by acting with blatant disregard for their health and well-being. Judge Torres agreed: ‘Respondents have exhibited, and continue to exhibit, deliberate indifference to Petitioners’ medical needs.’ This decision is an important reminder that the government cannot completely disregard people’s humanity and ignore imminent threats without violating the U.S. Constitution.”


Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) is a non-profit public defense office in Brooklyn, New York. BDS provides multi-disciplinary and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, immigration and other civil legal services, and social work support to over 30,000 indigent Brooklyn residents every year.




March 26, 2020


CONTACT: Daniel Ball, dball@bds.org





BDS Renews Call to Release Incarcerated People and Halt New Admissions to NYC Jails; Condemns Dangerous Jail Conditions

(BROOKLYN, NY) – Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, released the following statement in response to reports that 75 incarcerated people and 45 NYC jails staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and numerous accounts from our clients of disturbing and dangerous conditions inside of the jails:

“For weeks, we have joined defenders, advocates, incarcerated people, medical professionals, and elected officials to warn of the grave risks that an outbreak of COVID-19 in jails and prisons poses to incarcerated people, staff, and all New Yorkers. As the virus spreads like wildfire through Rikers Island, we worry that every hour that passes brings us closer to disaster and death, whether inside the facilities or shortly after release. Given the extremely high infection rate in jails to date, we fear that no one in the jails — whether incarcerated people or staff — is safe. Too few have been released thus far and too slowly. Elected officials at every level of government must take immediate action to initiate mass release and halt new admissions before it is too late.” 

Brooklyn Defender Services’ clients incarcerated at the jail facilities at Rikers Island have reported many concerns about the lack of medical attention, lack of hygiene products, isolation, squalid living conditions, and other disturbing reports of mistreatment, including:

  • Overflowing sewage running through a housing unit, which continued to house people before, during, and after the incident. In addition to the general inhabitability of these conditions, COVID-19 is believed to spread through fecal matter;
  • Squalid conditions, including units that have not been sanitized, and staff who refuse to clean out of concern for their own exposure to COVID-19;
  • Being turned away from the medical unit due to lack of available appointments;
  • Requests for  medical attention (also known as “sick calls”) for people who cannot leave their cells going unanswered for as long as two weeks;
  • Symptomatic people not being tested for COVID-19 or having their temperature checked;
  • Housing sick people who have not been confirmed to have COVID-19, as well as with people who are considered “high risk” due to underlying health issues, in close proximity to people with confirmed cases in newly reopened housing units;
  • Placing sick people in solitary confinement in lieu of medical treatment for the duration of their symptoms;
  • No precautions taken for people who were regularly in contact with a guard who is believed to have COVID-19 –even while people in that unit are now symptomatic;
  • Phones are not being sanitized between use, and people who request supplies to sanitize the phones themselves are being told that none are available;
  • People exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms may be provided one single-use face mask by medical staff before being sent back to their housing units without being tested, only to have those masks confiscated by guards upon their return to their units;
  • Sick people preparing food for general consumption;
  • No masks provided to people preparing food and food being served on dirty trays;
  • Soap is unavailable, both because it is not being provided or replaced in the communal bathrooms and because it is sold out at commissary;
  • Sleeping in communal dorms of roughly 50 people less than two feet apart from one another
  • Guards who are coughing at work and failing to take precautions to protect the people they have contact with;
  • And a general panic, among both incarcerated people and staff, as this dangerous situation quickly escalates.

Incarceration is devastating to personal and public health under normal circumstances, and inadequate access to medical care has long been and continues to be a concern for incarcerated people. This pandemic raises the stakes, as jails are uniquely poor environments for stopping or containing viral outbreaks. Jail medical personnel have made this clear: the only way to truly protect people is to release them.


  1. Mayor de Blasio’s proposed release of some people serving sentences of under one year from Rikers Island is helpful, but there are hundreds more who are not being released at this time who also deserve to stay healthy and be with their families during this unprecedented crisis. 
  2. More must be done to assess and immediately release individuals being held pretrial who are at grave risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19.
  3. Defense attorneys must be given access to their clients through phone, video or other methods so we can advocate for individuals with medical and other needs.
  4. Governor Cuomo and the state legislature must leave our bail laws intact. Certainly, now is not the time to consider measures to increase the jail population, just as we have already reduced the total number of people in jails across the state by nearly 7,000 and reduced the number of older people in Rikers by nearly half. 
  5. Governor Cuomo must use his staff resources to expedite and issue clemency for older, sick, and pregnant people and to order the release of all people detained on technical parole violations at Rikers and other local jails.
  6. Governor Cuomo must revise the emergency Executive Order that suspends due process requirements and is causing individuals to stay in jail even when the charges might otherwise be dropped.  





March 13, 2020



Ryan Karerat, The Bronx Defenders, rkarerat@bronxdefenders.org

Dan Ball, Brooklyn Defender Services,  dball@bds.org

Alejandra Lopez, The Legal Aid Society, AILopez@legal-aid.org




NYC Public Defenders Also Calling for Postponement of Appointments for People Under ICE Supervised Release 

(NEW YORK, NY) – The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, and The Legal Aid Society – New York City’s defender organizations providing free legal representation to detained immigrants through the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP)  today called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to respond to the growing COVID-19 crisis by releasing all people in their custody at New York City-area detention facilities, halting arrests in the tri-state area, and postponing appointments for people placed under ICE supervised release. 

The statement comes after ICE failed to respond to a demand letter issued on Friday, March 6, 2020 to ICE and the wardens of the jails that contract with ICE – Bergen County Jail, Essex County Correctional Facility, Hudson County Correctional Facility, and Orange County Jail – seeking information about the agencies’ plans to address the impending spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. 

The NYIFUP organizations release the following joint statement:

“Last Friday, the NYIFUP organizations contacted ICE and other local jail officials to ensure that ICE and local jail officials were implementing safety and preventive measures to protect currently-incarcerated people from COVID-19 at the Bergen County Jail, Essex County Correctional Facility, Hudson County Correctional Facility, and Orange County Jail. ICE has thus far not responded, and has failed to provide any guidance on any measures that are being taken to protect the people held in their custody from COVID-19.

Instead, we have learned through the people we represent who are incarcerated in these jails that they are not receiving basic disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizer, or even toilet paper. These abysmal conditions and lack of response to our inquiries underscores that the ongoing incarceration of people by ICE during the global COVID-19 pandemic is not only a policy failure but an abhorrent health crisis that must be addressed immediately.

As advocates and attorneys who work every day on behalf of people held inside these jails, we have witnessed how ICE has repeatedly proven recklessly indifferent to their safety, and at times, even to their lives. The safest preventative measure for the incarcerated people we represent every day is to immediately restore their freedom and physical liberty. Because ICE and local jail officials have demonstrated that they cannot guarantee their safety, we call on ICE to immediately release all people in their custody at these four facilities. 

At a minimum, ICE must release people who are at the highest risk of serious health complications if they contract COVID-19. This includes, but is not limited to, older adults, pregnant women, people with respiratory conditions, people who are immunocompromised (including people who are HIV+), people with severe mental health conditions, and people with other chronic health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to infection. All of these individuals should be released with a discharge plan, along with a minimum of 30-day supply of medications as required by law, for post-release treatment and services in community-based settings.

Additionally, we urge ICE to halt all arrests in the tri-state area and postpone appointments for people who are under supervised release in the New York field office. Arresting people in the midst of a global pandemic serves no function or purpose other than to terrorize people and potentially spread a highly infectious virus. Requiring people to check in with deportation officers as they sit in crowded waiting rooms for hours at a time is dangerously counterproductive to the calls for  social distancing and limiting gatherings. 

This is a public health emergency that ICE has proven it is not equipped to handle.  We demand the immediate release of people currently in ICE custody at the aforementioned facilities, the halting of all arrests by ICE’s New York Field Office, and postponement of all appointments for people under supervised release of the agency.”



March 12, 2020


Redmond Haskins, The Legal Aid Society (RHaskins@legal-aid.org)

Daniel Ball, Brooklyn Defender Services (DBall@bds.org)

Ryan Karerat, The Bronx Defenders (RKarerat@bronxdefenders.org)

Lupe Todd-Medina, New York County Defender Services (LToddmedina@nycds.org)

Sam McCann, The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (SMccann@ndsny.org)


Joint Defender Statement Calling for Immediate Release of Vulnerable Incarcerated New Yorkers in Response to Coronavirus

“Thousands of people are currently detained in New York jails and prisons in conditions that have long been unsanitary and unsafe. These facilities are particularly vulnerable in the event of a public health crisis like the ongoing spread of Coronavirus. It is clear and deeply troubling that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) are inadequately prepared for this crisis.

Because DOCCS and DOC officials cannot guarantee the safety and health of the people we represent, we call on Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio to immediately release individuals who are at the highest risk of serious health complications if they contract the Coronavirus.  This includes older adults, pregnant women, people with respiratory conditions, people who are immunocompromised, and people with other chronic health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable. They should be released with a discharge plan, along with adequate supply of medications, for post-release treatment and services in community-based settings.

Additionally, we urge Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to instruct judges across the state to release anyone held in pretrial detention or held solely for administrative reasons, including violations of conditional discharge, violation of parole, and immigration detainers. Judges should be instructed not to put anyone in pretrial detention for missed court dates who is out on their own recognizance or who is on supervised release. The vast majority of cases where the person is not incarcerated should be adjourned to a later date and/or accused people should not be made to appear in court for their cases.

Further isolating incarcerated people is not a solution and will not protect anyone from harm. Releasing people from New York’s prisons and jails and limiting court appearances for accused people who are not detained will reduce the chance of a devastating outbreak, protecting the health of those who are at liberty as well as those who are incarcerated, visitors, and staff. Fewer people in prisons and jails will reduce the need for heightened medical care, particularly when there may be reduced staff as a result of an outbreak. Access to medical treatment has long been and remains a fundamental concern for incarcerated people. The potential for an epidemic makes a dire situation even worse.

A coronavirus outbreak in our overcrowded, poorly maintained jails and prison facilities would be devastating, swift, and deadly. It is incumbent on our leaders to do everything they can to protect all of their constituents, including incarcerated people.

This proposal has recent precedent among other countries handling this exact same crisis. This week, Iran released 70,000 people in prison from custody in an effort to curtail the impacts of the outbreak there.

Taking sensible steps to release vulnerable people serves the public interest in a way that continued mass detention does not. We call on state and local leaders to work together to identify people for immediate release. Additionally, we urge ICE to utilize its inherent discretion to release detained immigrants to their families and communities while they complete their cases.”