COVID-19 Exposes Anew the Crisis of Immigrant Incarceration in Michigan. The Governor Must Act Now.

Over the last two weeks, in response to mounting evidence of the inevitability of  COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers, prisons, and jails, our coalition has signed onto and circulated an open letter calling on Governor Gretchen Whitmer to release elderly and vulnerable people from Michigan state prisons, as well as multiple letters to ICE (including one signed by thousands of medical professionals from around the country) demanding the immediate release of immigrants detained by that agency. In addition to these demands, which grow more urgent each day, we are acutely aware of the dangers facing another incarcerated population: the immigrants at the North Lake Correctional Facility, an immigrant-only prison in Baldwin operated by the GEO Group through a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Since its reopening on October 1st of last year, North Lake has functioned as a for-profit prison exclusively for immigrants who are not U.S. citizens and who have been convicted of federal crimes. The dehumanizing name used by the Bureau of Prisons for these institutions is “Criminal Alien Requirement facility.” They’re also known as shadow prisons, since detailed information on how they operate can be virtually impossible to find. But government figures show that the majority of people held at these segregated facilities have been convicted of either drug crimes or immigration offenses such as unauthorized entry or reentry—in other words, the same acts that can result in detention at ICE’s concentration camps, many of which are also run by GEO. Regardless of the nature of the convictions, we have long recognized that this prison is both distinct from ICE detention centers, and intimately bound up with the same system of racist state violence in which ICE plays a vital role.

The COVID-19 emergency has been a clarifying moment for all of us. It has given a terrifying new urgency to truths which have been clear for some time: healthcare should be free for everyone; incarceration has always been a public health crisis; and it has always been unacceptable for the GEO Group, a company with a notorious record of medical neglect and human-rights abuses stretching back to its founding in 1984, to hold hundreds of immigrants for profit inside a prison complex isolated in rural Michigan.

Now, days after the announcement that two employees of the Bureau of Prisons had tested positive for COVID-19 in New Hampshire and Texas, there has been the first confirmed case of a person in BOP custody contracting the virus. We have also gotten word of the first incarcerated person testing positive in Michigan. As with other sites of incarceration around the country, it is only a matter of time before COVID-19 arrives at North Lake.

Governor Whitmer has already shown admirable leadership in resisting the inhumane logic of immigrant incarceration. Just over a year ago, in February 2019, she cancelled the sale of land in Ionia to the private firm Immigration Centers of America, who had intended to open a new immigrant detention center. The Governor’s office made it clear that she had arrived at this decision partly because “ICA was unable to agree to terms that guaranteed that this facility would not be used to detain adults who had been separated from their children or other family members.” While we continue to commend this decision, we must sadly acknowledge that separating adults from their children is an essential function of the North Lake Correctional Facility, as it is for all prisons. Moreover, and most critically, there is absolutely no safe way for people in prison to practice the social-distancing measures that Governor Whitmer recommended when she banned events and gatherings of more than 50 people around the state. There is no way for incarcerated people to follow the steps mandated by the Stay Home, Stay Safe Executive Order.

In light of this impossibility, and the grave risks posed by this facility to incarcerated people, staff members, and everyone in Michigan, we urge Governor Whitmer to:

  • Take all measures in her power to pressure the federal government to release people, especially the elderly and most vulnerable, from the North Lake Correctional Facility and other immigrant-only federal prisons.
  • Seek the immediate release of other incarcerated and detained people, beginning with the most vulnerable, from ICE detention centers, state prisons, and jails.
  • Call for an immediate freeze on deportations and in-person immigration court proceedings, in the interest of protecting public safety.

The time for decarceration is now. Governor Whitmer has shown before that she can make ethical decisions in opposition to immigrant incarceration in Michigan. We call on her at this decisive juncture to put these same principles into action before it’s too late.

Call Governor Whitmer’s office now to demand decarceration in Michigan for public health:

If you are a family member or loved one of an immigrant incarcerated in Michigan and you would like to be in touch with us about the conditions in any facility, or for any other reason, please contact: