A federal judge in San Francisco ordered the immediate investigation of all inmates and staff at a Bakersfield immigration prison where COVID-19 spread for weeks while officials refused to test for the virus.
After results were received on Friday showing that nearly half of the inmates tested earlier in the week were positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus, federal district court judge Vince Chhabria ordered U.S. immigration and customs to rush Performing results for all individuals stayed in the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility.
“I order it to be done immediately and no one to stop working until they finish,” the judge told ICE attorneys and the private contractor who operates the facility, according to deputy defense attorney Emi MacLean of the San Francisco office. The office represents inmates at the San Francisco Immigration Court facility.
MacLean said the judge cited the “deliberate indifference” of ICE and GEO Group, the private company that manages the facility, saying, “There is no question that this outbreak could have been avoided.”
According to MacLean, the first results of the rapid tests on Saturday showed eleven more positive cases. Of the 104 people detained who have remained at the facility, which once housed more than 350 people, at least 54 are positive for the virus.
Chhabria’s orders also stipulated that Mesa Verde’s approximately 140 employees should be tested immediately, beginning with their next shift, and then weekly thereafter. Documents filed in the case indicated that ICE purposely did not test staff for months so as not to interfere with immigration enforcement, McLean said.
The resolution followed a series of class action hearings filed in April by the Public Defender’s Office, the ACLU Foundations in Northern California and Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area Civil Rights Lawyers Committee, and the Lakin & Cooley law firms in Wille and Cooley.
The first action to be taken in the lawsuit was to ensure that the facility took adequate measures to ensure the safety of the detainees. As the litigation progressed, ICE insisted on testing only those who showed symptoms of possible infection and reported there weren’t any, MacLean said.
In mid-June, ICE and GEO attorneys reported to the court that an employee who received an off-work test was positive for the virus, the first of 14 to eventually report positive tests they did themselves, MacLean said.
On July 31, the first inmate tested positive.
“Then the real crisis began,” said MacLean. “They didn’t have a plan. You didn’t act. “
By then, the facility had reduced its population to about 120 under the pressure of the lawsuit. Several symptomatic inmates were moved to one dormitory and everyone else to another, including those exposed to other infected people, creating ideal conditions for the spread, MacLean said.
“The detention center is not safe for anyone who is there,” she said. “The level of inaction and lack of concern for the people in their care is staggering and outrageous.”
In an email exchange received from plaintiffs, Brooke Sanchez urged Othon, a clinical surgery specialist at Wellpath, a private Nashville-based healthcare company that provides services to ICE detention facilities, against instructions from an ICE officer to initiate testing.
The proposal to test all detainees has already been rejected “because of the housing restrictions we are facing,” wrote Sanchez Othon.
“Testing all detainees will possibly 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’s exactly what we need to do with the results once they are in. “
The facility began testing the first week of August, but the results of those tests have not yet been returned, MacLean said.
Another round of testing, carried out on Tuesday and reported to the court on Friday, triggered the order. Of 70 tested, 32 were positive.
“We are very afraid that we will never return to our families outside,” Hugo Lucas, who is currently detained in Mesa Verde, told his lawyers. “I have my daughter who is 14 years old and I can’t tell her what’s going on because I’m too scared for her.”
Lawyers said they would continue to push for security to be improved at the facility.
“If ICE and GEO cannot guarantee the basic safety of those in their care through regular testing and adequate medical care, we must consider whether they can detain anyone at all,” said Sean Riordan, senior attorney for ACLU NorCal.
The Times staffer, Andrea Castillo, contributed to this story.