Last month, as the coronavirus spread to federal immigration detention centers across the country, officials at the Mesa Verde facility in Bakersfield turned down a proposal to test all inmates there as it would be difficult to identify those who tested positive to quarantine.
In an email on July 6, Janese Mull, acting director of the San Francisco Branch of Immigration and Customs Control, said ICE lawyers had advised that it was in the best interests of the facility to carry out COVID-19 testing to be carried out for all detainees.
However, Brooke Sanchez Othon, a clinical surgery specialist at Wellpath, a private Nashville-based healthcare company that provides services to ICE detention facilities, pushed against Mull’s orders. The proposal to test all detainees has already been rejected “because of the housing restrictions we are facing,” wrote Sanchez Othon.
“Testing all detainees may cause the same housing problem we had last week, but on a larger scale,” continued Sanchez Othon, referring to the quarantine issue of infected detainees. “Completing the tests is not the problem, it is exactly what we need to do with the results once they are in.”
The email exchange received by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office shows that ICE has failed to contain the spread of the coronavirus in its facilities, the agency’s critics claim.
This week, a COVID-19 outbreak occurred at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, which is holding about 120 inmates. So far, 14 employees and nine detainees have tested positive.
Detainees and immigration advocates reported a chaotic situation where two men had been in the hospital since Saturday showing several other symptoms of the virus while held in large dormitories with others who feared they would be infected. When the test results came in, staff ran out of quarantine rooms, and reports suggest that at one point two men were taken into a bathroom for hours.
Spokespeople for ICE and GEO declined to comment because of pending legal disputes.
On Thursday, a federal judge in San Francisco passed a scathing verdict saying ICE was “so carefree about the health crisis” that it “lost the right to trust”.
“Documentary evidence shows that the defendants avoided widespread testing of staff and inmates at the facility, not because of a lack of testing, but because of fear that positive test results would require the implementation of safety measures that they believed were not worth the effort . Judge Vincent Chhabria wrote when he issued the injunction.
Chhabria ordered officers to run rapid COVID-19 tests on all inmates at the facility weekly and not to admit new inmates.
Emails and other documents received from attorneys suing the federal government in April over conditions at the facility during the pandemic provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at conditions at the facility and ICE’s response to the novel coronavirus.
Mesa Verde has four dormitories, each with enough bunk beds for 100 people. The facility has three disciplinary separation rooms, two medical separation rooms, and three admission rooms without beds. Before the breakout last week, inmates alternated sleeping tasks in the upper and lower bunk with one person per bed.
Inmates in Dormitory B requested to be tested for days before the facility’s staff ran tests late last month, lawyers and inmates said. In an email sent Wednesday, a federal government attorney said that 78 inmates in the remaining three dormitories in Mesa Verde had been tested and seven others declined to take the tests. Inmates from Dorm B were moved to Dorm C so that Dorm B could be identified for those who tested positive.
In a May 18 memo, Nathan Allen, the director of Mesa Verde, presented a COVID-19 test plan. Tests would begin two days later, and inmates who refused to be tested would be held together in a dormitory for 14 days. Those who tested positive would be taken to medical isolation areas or a general residential area, depending on the number of people.
“Any inmate who tests positive will be adequately quarantined as per CDC guidelines,” he wrote.
But this plan was not carried out, documents show.
Three days later, on a conference call, San Francisco branch deputy chief Alexander Pham wrote, “We are going to limit the scope of testing because ICE Health Service Corps guidelines would limit housing resources as much as possible. “
Further correspondence exposes ICE and GEO Group’s indifference to testing and their inability to agree on a consistent strategy, proponents said.
Another heated exchange began on May 21 when Mesa Verde’s acting health services administrator, Wendy Baca, emailed concerns she had about the director’s plan to test “street arrests” – those that came through after her arrest ICE trains were brought into the facility instead of being transferred in.
Baca said testing these inmates immediately and then releasing them to the general population of the facility immediately after testing negative “will not ensure that COVID-19 does not make it into the facility. This is due to the incubation time (usually 14 days) required to trigger a positive COVID-19 test result. ”
Erik Bonnar, the deputy director of ICE’s San Francisco branch, responded bluntly by email, “It seems GEO has no interest in doing asymptomatic testing AND the GEO backed test kits are not the IHSC [ICE Health Service Corps] recommended type. You can’t make that up. ”
On May 26, Director Allen wrote that the acting head of the field office “would rather not have personal tests carried out” as this would affect enforcement and removal operations, the arm of ICE handling the deportations.
A month later, a senior executive at GEO Group, the private prison company that manages the facility, scolded Allen, saying his testing plan had not identified mitigating strategies for arriving inmates who disagree to be tested, but housed them directly will be a residential unit anyway.
“We can’t just raise our hands and say there is nothing we can do,” said Paul Laird, vice president of GEO’s western region. “We should at least identify certain areas within the newcomer unit. Maybe it’s in a row of bunks in the front, maybe in the back, etc, but we can’t just spread them out without control from the device.
“Whether it’s duct tape on the floor, privacy curtains, or some other strategy that you can identify, it would be better than just saying there is nothing we can do.”
On April 29, Chhabria ordered ICE to compile a list of detainees at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 to consider release. Since then, almost 130 Chhabria prisoners have been released. Others were released voluntarily by ICE or on bail.
At the same time, ICE continued to bring new inmates into the facility – about 175 since early May, lawyers said.
Detainees wondered how the outbreak began, speculating that it could have happened either through staff members or newcomers.
The first Mesa Verde employee to test positive on June 17 was a nurse. The first detainee tested positive on admission and remained in quarantine before entering the general population on July 1.
However, the virus didn’t spread until four weeks later, on July 30, when 65-year-old Yao Saeturn tested positive. The next day he was taken to a local hospital and handed over to his family on Monday.
Some inmates came from prisons with coronavirus outbreaks. An inmate transferred from Tehachapi, California’s correctional facility, where more than 150 inmates have COVID-19, said he was only tested after requesting a test. Another inmate, relocated on July 28 from Avenal State Prison, where the virus killed two inmates, said his temperature was taken on arrival but he was not tested.
When the German Najera Grajeda was brought to Mesa Verde from Growlersberg Conservation Camp northeast of Sacramento on April 9, he was not given a coronavirus test.
Najera developed nausea and body aches early last week. The 33-year-old, who suffers from asthma, said he immediately requested a coronavirus test but was told it wasn’t necessary.
He received a day later. He was taken to the doctor on Monday, where a nurse told him he had COVID-19.
Najera said she told him not to tell anyone “so they wouldn’t be alarmed” and sent him back to the dormitory. An hour later they took him to a disciplinary room.
That night he passed out and woke up in the hospital, where he was being oxygenated and had a seizure, before being discharged and taken back to Mesa Verde.
“You didn’t treat me like a human,” said Najera. “You don’t see this disease as serious. You are not afraid of it. ”
He said things got better on Wednesday under pressure from lawyers. Eventually, the nurses began checking his temperature three times a day instead of once.
Susan Beaty, an employee of the Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, was one of 14 people arrested on July 27 at the home of California Governor Gavin Newsom while demanding that prison transfers be stopped.
“We were there because customers and community members had told us for six months that the transfers were going to fuel the outbreak,” Beaty said. “We are here a week later.”