San Diego ICE detention center facing its 2nd COVID-19 outbreak

Officials say they're following CDC guidelines despite criticism from those held inside since the first outbreak began


By Kate Morrissey
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Otay Mesa Detention Center is facing its second COVID-19 outbreak of the pandemic after the virus first swept through the facility in the spring, infecting more than 200 people in custody and leaving one man dead.

The facility holds Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who are waiting for immigration court cases or their deportations as well as U.S. Marshals Service inmates who are waiting for their trials or sentencing in federal criminal cases. Between the two groups in custody, the facility currently has more than 40 cases, according to information from ICE and U.S. Marshals Service.

The medical section of the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
The medical section of the Otay Mesa Detention Center. (Photo/Nelvin C. Cepeda of the San Diego Union-Tribune via TNS)

According to Lynzey Donahue, spokeswoman for U.S. Marshals Service, 113 inmates have tested positive over the course of the pandemic, and 79 have recovered. That leaves 34 active cases among U.S. Marshals Service inmates as of Monday.

According to ICE's website, 10 detainees at Otay Mesa had active cases of the virus as of Tuesday.

Neither agency nor CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns and operates the facility, responded directly to questions about the new outbreak's origin. All have maintained that they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention despite criticism from those held inside since the first outbreak began.

ICE said the agency has restricted intakes and transfers to the facility. U.S. Marshals Service did not answer questions about transfers, but according to inmates, the agency is bringing people in. Inmates interviewed by the Union-Tribune believe that these transfers may have caused the new outbreak.

CoreCivic deferred to the two agencies regarding questions about movement in and out of the facility.

"What I can tell you is CoreCivic Health Services tests all new intakes, and they are placed on a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival, regardless of the outcome of their testing," said Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic.

U.S. Marshals inmates in two different housing units told the Union-Tribune that, based on information they'd received from guards and what they'd witnessed themselves, the outbreak began after more than half of a group of roughly 50 inmates who had been transferred to Otay Mesa from a facility in Arizona tested positive.

That transferred group was quarantined in its own housing unit upon arrival at Otay Mesa as in the protocol outlined by Gilchrist, the inmates said.

Signs soon appeared on the door to the unit indicating that people inside had tested positive, and then inmates began to hear of other units having positive cases as well.

"This facility is a private facility, so they have to take these people per contract is what I've been told," said Robert Houser, a U.S. Marshals Service inmate. "It's a money problem, and they want their money. They're not worried about whether they're sick or not before they get here."

Houser, 36, of Riverside County, is being held in the housing unit known as "V pod." He said that a man was taken from his unit a few days ago, and then officials told the unit it was now under quarantine as well. Three other men in his unit have seemed sick and feverish, he said, but they hadn't been tested as of Wednesday afternoon.

A guard told him recently that all of the pods have been quarantined again, Houser said. He worried that the virus could have spread through guards who move between the housing units so that other guards can take their breaks.

Though his unit had already been quarantined for several days, Wednesday was the first day he saw guards wearing protective jumpsuits when they came into it, Houser said.

Gilchrist said that claims about staff not fully protecting themselves are "patently false."

"Staff are required to wear masks at all times, and they wear the required PPE based on the status of a pod," Gilchrist said. She pointed to CDC guidelines about what protective equipment should be used by detention staff depending on the COVID status of the housing unit.

Houser has been at Otay Mesa Detention Center since last year and thinks that he got the coronavirus in the spring when it first spread inside the facility. He wasn't tested until after his symptoms passed, he said, and he never tested positive.

"You could tell all these facilities and the courts are trying to work together to figure out a routine to deal with COVID, and COVID is overpowering it," Houser said. "There's nothing they can do to keep us safe in here."

J.R. Ladd, a 36-year-old from Escondido held in the unit called R pod, said he saw the quarantine signs popping up on the different housing doors when he was being escorted to the medical unit for treatment of an injury. After that, he refused to go to the medical unit, worried that it would expose him to the virus.

He said he hasn't been able to get much official information about what's going on. Most of the staff won't answer his questions, but one guard told him, as with Houser, that every housing unit has had positive cases.

People from R pod have been removed to the medical unit as well, Ladd said.

He also worried about the possibility for spread between pods by guards.

"The one (corrections officer) right now is wearing a nightgown from a hospital that you tie in the back with two strings, and the guy relieving him is wearing what looks like a trash bag with the head cut out," Ladd said, describing the scene in his unit during a phone interview. "They're the ones going from pod to pod to pod to pod, not us, you know?"

CoreCivic spokeswoman Gilchrist said that facility staff has ample and appropriate protective equipment available.

"No garbage bags are used as PPE, period," Gilchrist said.

Ladd, who has been at the facility since the end of July, said he was recently issued one mask after making multiple requests. It's a cloth mask meant to be washed, but he doesn't have a second one to put on while it's in the laundry. He said his unit was under quarantine for several days before receiving masks.

Houser also said that he only has one mask. That's because he threw away his months-old one when he was given a new mask this week.

Gilchrist took issue with the men's claims about mask distribution at the facility, calling it "bad information."

"All detainees have been issued two cloth masks, and information is posted about how to launder them," Gilchrist said. "In addition, detainees can ask for a new mask at any time."

In a lawsuit filed to free U.S. Marshals Service inmates who would be at high risk of severe symptoms if exposed to the virus, a judge has so far declined to order inmates released from the facility.

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