Coronavirus has begun to spread among detainees held at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.
On Wednesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported nine detainees had tested positive for COVID-19. The federal government said in court filings two dorms had been exposed to the virus, with around 60 individuals housed in those dorms being isolated from the rest of the detention center as a precaution.
Both ICE and Geo Group Inc., the private prison company that operates Mesa Verde for the federal government, referred The Californian to their organizations’ websites in lieu of commenting on the outbreak. The two entities cited pending litigation as the reason they could not comment further.
A cohort of legal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, have filed a class action lawsuit against ICE and GEO on behalf of those held at Mesa Verde and the Yuba County Jail, pushing for greater disease control measures to be undertaken at those facilities.
“They are acting with deliberate indifference toward the lives of people detained in these facilities, and potentially further exposing individuals,” ACLU Attorney Angelica Salceda said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “In these facilities, people are not able to engage in social distancing, they don’t have the appropriate protective equipment, for example, to protect themselves, there are many medically vulnerable individuals who continue to be detained.”
In addition, emails released by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the lawsuit reveal 13 GEO staffers tested positive for COVID-19 throughout July. Several were reported as being asymptomatic.
Detainees have repeatedly gone on labor and hunger strikes to protest conditions at Mesa Verde, which they claim put them at risk of contracting coronavirus.
In a Tuesday filing, lawyers with the U.S. Attorney, which is representing ICE, described how COVID-19 had been discovered in Mesa Verde, but indicated around half of the detainees had not yet been tested.
The outbreak began July 29, the filings show, when two detainees tested positive. One was a new arrival who was tested during the intake process and was subsequently isolated. The other was housed in Dorm B. Upon receiving the results, Mesa Verde ceased accepting new intakes, and offered COVID tests to the 33 detainees held in Dorm B the next day.
The filings say 32 detainees consented to be tested, but had to wait four days until results were returned.
On Monday, the results showed five detainees had tested positive. The five were removed from Dorm B and placed in isolation.
The previous Friday, however, a detainee in Dorm C experienced coronavirus symptoms, and was transferred to a hospital where he tested positive. The filings indicate the 31 detainees in Dorm C had to wait until Tuesday to be tested, with results pending for four to seven days.
Now, the government says all detainees in Mesa Verde have been offered the tests.
Mesa Verde is being kept below capacity to allow for some social distancing, although lawyers for detainees say the measures instituted by ICE and GEO are not enough. As of Tuesday, the detention center held 121 individuals, or about 30 percent of its capacity. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say Mesa Verde does not have enough isolation units to hold all those who have tested positive.
According to court filings, one of Mesa Verde’s four dorms is in the process of being used to hold only those who have tested positive for COVID-19. Lawyers for the detainees have argued a court should force ICE to implement point-of-care tests at Mesa Verde, which show results within minutes. The U.S. Attorney, however, opposed such a measure, calling it inappropriate in court filings.
Judge Vince Chhabria, of U.S. District Court of Northern California, will need to make a determination, which is expected soon.
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.