ICE Questioned Over Ability to Keep Inmates Safe From Covid

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A privately run detention center in Bakersfield, California currently barred from admitting new detainees, could resume intakes so long as it retains enough space to isolate those who are symptomatic or test positive for Covid-19, a health expert who specializes in congregate housing testified Thursday at a hearing on the center’s pandemic response.

Dr. Sean Henderson, medical director and senior physician for the correctional health department that serves Los Angeles County Jail said new intakes are possible at Mesa Vera detention center if it follows strict protocols that include isolating new arrivals who test positive, are symptomatic, or refuse to take a Covid-19 test at all. 

The facility is run by Geo Group, which contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I would treat the refusers as symptomatic because I wouldn’t know where they are in the disease process if at all,” Henderson said. “I’m assuming there would be few of them because I understand there is a plan to brief them before transport that they are going to be tested.”

He added, “It would help if they had the minimum number of refusers as possible.”

ICE and GEO Group maintain that they can start accepting new detainees without continued court oversight. Following a Covid-19 outbreak at the facility in August, U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria ordered ICE to desist new admissions at Mesa Verde and submit daily reports on the number of tests administered and cases among detainees and staff.

Civil rights lawyers representing a class of 400 immigrants who sued over overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail in Marysville in April are asking Chhabria to maintain a strict watch over the facility and issue another injunction that would restrict intake and mandate regular staff testing.

Mesa Verde Warden Nathan Allen said as of Wednesday, the center is operating at less than 15% capacity with 45 people currently being housed in three dorms. One dorm, he said, sits empty. Court documents submitted by ICE say there have been no new Covid-19 cases among detainees since Aug. 18 or since Aug. 26 for staff, and that all positive detainees have recovered as of Sept. 2.

But in a status update filed by GEO Group late Thursday, the company informed the court two Mesa Verde staff members are currently under quarantine due to positive Covid test results.

Under direct examination by his attorney, Allen said the facility would keep its five isolation cells empty for isolation purposes, along with at least one dorm which should be used to quarantine new arrivals for 14 days. Mesa Verde should only be allowed to accept new detainees Monday through Friday, then the 14-day quarantine would start. 

“If a single detainee tested positive, we would put them in medical isolation,” he said.

Henderson said theoretically the proposed system would help prevent an outbreak.

Chhabria asked him what would happen if the facility had an outbreak of more than five cases, symptomatics or test refusers.

Henderson said if that happens, the facility must stop new intakes.

“You don’t let them in the front door. You have to either send them to the hospital or move them to another facility that’s close by or find you other housing because they can’t come in.” he said. “You have to say, ‘I have nowhere to put you that’s safe for the population I’m protecting. If you refuse to be tested, I cannot have you come in here because you pose a threat to the population I’m serving.’”

He told Chhabria, “If the numbers get huge — which I think you’re trying to suggest — if there are 50 symptomatics, all of a sudden you would be hard pressed. You’d need to have a Supermax where everyone is wrapped in bubble wrap and put in a room by themselves, but that’s not reality.”

Under cross-examination, ACLU staff attorney Sean Riordan questioned Henderson on the mortality rate at the LA County Jail, as well as his previous rejections of massive ongoing testing efforts and belief that seven-feet between bunks is sufficient to meet CDC guidelines on social distancing.

“At least seven people who had Covid-19 have died, but Covid-19 may not have been the contributing factor in their death,” Henderson said, adding that “there have been several staff deaths” at the jail.

Under further questioning from GEO Group attorney Royal Oakes, Henderson added  that no system is airtight. 

“Virtually any system theoretically could be overwhelmed?” Oakes asked.

“Yes sir,” Henderson said. 

“Not to be ridiculous, but if you took Supermax and the Mayo Clinic and relocated them to the Pentagon — it would be terrific in terms of dealing with an outbreak — but if some Andromeda strain hits, any system is capable of being overwhelmed?”

“Yes. We were never going to keep Covid out of the correction settings, that’s never our goal,” Henderson said. “The goal is to do our very best to keep whoever we had as safe as possible.”

The week-long evidentiary hearing on Covid-19 safeguards at the Mesa Verde detention center is expected to wrap up Friday.

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