SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Testifying on the adequacy of an immigration detention center’s Covid-19 response, a prison health expert on Tuesday called the decision to house symptomatic detainees with non-symptomatic immigrants at the privately run facility “cruel.”
“It’s reckless,” Dr. Robert Greifinger testified during a virtual court hearing.
Greifinger is a consultant who previously ran medical services for New York state prisons and now serves as a court-appointed monitor overseeing health care for jails in Miami, New Orleans and Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was hired by a class of immigrant detainees to evaluate the adequacy of Covid-19 response practices, plans and policies at the Mesa Verde detention center. GEO Group, a private contractor hired by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, runs the facility in Bakersfield, California.
On day two of a multiday evidentiary hearing to determine if Mesa Verde can start accepting new detainees without continued court oversight, Greifinger harshly criticized decisions made in late July and August when Covid-19 was spreading through the detention center, eventually infecting more than half the detainees and a quarter of the staff.
Greifinger said ICE and GEO Group had no plan for what to do if an outbreak occurred at Mesa Verde. He said leaders repeatedly delayed testing all staff and detainees “because they didn’t want to find out people were infected because they wouldn’t know how to house them.”
An Aug. 3 email from an ICE public health official to Mesa Verde medical staff drew the most severe rebuke from Greifinger. In that email, Uruaku Obasi of the ICE Health Service Corps said it was up to “provider discretion” as to whether symptomatic detainees should be separated from those without symptoms in one of four large dorms at Mesa Verde.
“I think it was cruel,” Greifinger said of that instruction, adding it did not comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. “It was wholly inappropriate to put people who had symptoms, who may be infected, to house them with other people who may not be infected.”
Turning to Mesa Verde’s plan for accepting new arrivals, Greifinger complained the plan lacks details on when detainees should be tested and where they should be housed based on their status of symptoms or test results.
“It’s just vague,” he said.
On cross examination, attorneys for ICE and GEO Group attacked Greifinger’s credibility, noting that he has never created a Covid-19 response plan for a jail or detention center nor has he written any scholarly articles on Covid-19.
Greifinger had blamed a failure of leadership for the lack of adherence to mask-wearing and social-distancing recommendations among detainees at Mesa Verde.
Noting that the facility already posts Covid-19 informational posters on walls, distributes pamphlets, makes loud-speaker announcements and has guards wear masks and practice social distancing, U.S. Justice Department lawyer Neal Hong asked what more could be done to encourage compliance.
“If they’re taking all these measures, what specifically more can a facility do to get detainees to comply,” Hong asked.
Turning to Mesa Verde’s architectural design, Greifinger explained the facility’s physical layout poses unique challenges. Mesa Verde has four, large, 100-person dorms and five single-unit cells — three restricted housing units and two medical isolation cells. Only those five single cells can be used to individually isolate symptomatic detainees or those who test positive for the virus.
To effectively prevent or manage an outbreak, Greifinger said Mesa Verde would need enough space to separate detainees into five categories: Covid-19-positive detainees, symptomatic detainees, new arrivals, those who refuse to take a Covid-19 test, and the general population.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria asked if the plaintiffs’ proposed injunction, which recommends keeping one dorm empty to house infected detainees, would be adequate given those challenges.
Greifinger replied that to safely operate under the proposed plan, Mesa Verde would have to limit new arrivals and maintain flexibility on how different dorms and cells are used.
The judge questioned if other detention centers are set up like Mesa Verde with four large dorm units and very few single cells. Greifinger said he has visited 18 detention centers and never seen one set up with so few cells as Mesa Verde, but he could not say if this type of setup is more typical for a privately run detention center.
“If Mesa Verde is atypical in its layout and other immigration detention facilities are more of a typical jail or prison layout, maybe part of the problem here is Mesa Verde is simply inadequate to detain people during a pandemic,” Chhabria posited.
Also on Tuesday, GEO Group informed the court that a male guard who came in close contact with several detainees during a blanket exchange on Nov. 11 tested positive for the virus two days later, making him the first staff member to test positive at Mesa Verde since August. The guard last worked at the facility on Nov. 12 and is now quarantining at home, according to GEO Group.
This case stems from a class action filed by more than 400 immigrant detainees at Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail in Marysville in April, claiming ICE failed to take steps necessary to protect them from an unreasonable risk of Covid-19 infection.
Mesa Verde is now operating at less than 15% capacity with 49 detainees after Chhabria released more than 100 detainees at Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail to ease crowding at both facilities. In August, Chhabria ordered ICE and GEO Group to conduct rapid Covid-19 testing for all detainees at Mesa Verde amid a growing outbreak there.
On Monday, the judge questioned the adequacy of a plan to start accepting new arrivals at Mesa Verde without court oversight, focusing on the defendants’ refusal to ensure at least one dorm will stay empty to house Covid-19-positive detainees.
The multiday evidentiary hearing on Covid-19 safeguards at the Mesa Verde detention center is expected to continue through Friday.