Judge Imposes Covid Measures for Immigrants at Northern California Jail

(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Less than a month after imposing strict Covid-19 safety measures on a privately run detention center in California, a federal judge on Thursday put similar restrictions in place to contain a major outbreak at a county jail that houses immigrant detainees north of Sacramento.

“We think it’s an important victory that will help protect the lives of ICE detainees at the Yuba County Jail,” said ACLU of Northern California attorney William Freeman, who represents the detainees, in a phone interview. “The measures that the court ordered are extensive, and they will have a positive effect on detainee health and safety.”

More than a third of the 231 inmates and immigrant detainees at Yuba County Jail have tested positive for Covid-19 over the last two weeks, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which contracts with the county to hold undocumented immigrants awaiting potential deportation.

On Tuesday, lawyers for a class of detainees being held at Yuba County Jail and the privately run Mesa Verde detention center in Bakersfield asked for a temporary restraining order to require more stringent safety protocols at the Yuba County facility 40 miles north of Sacramento.

ICE argued in a brief Wednesday night that the jail has already agreed not to take in more ICE detainees until the outbreak is under control. It gave rapid Covid tests this past Friday to the 20 detainees now housed there and has agreed to do more rapid tests for all symptomatic detainees and staff members.

The agency also vowed to separate detainees into four categories: those who test negative with no symptoms, those who test negative but have symptoms, those who test positive for the virus, and those who tested positive but have recovered.

ICE claimed an injunction would interfere with the county jail’s operations and with a separate consent decree on jail conditions overseen by a federal judge in the Eastern District of California. ICE further insisted that an injunction would limit the ability of the jail and county health officer “to make decisions in the interest of the health and safety of detainees.”

In a 4-page order Thursday, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria acknowledged some measures sought by detainees’ lawyers would “intrude too greatly on the county’s ability to operate the facility as a whole,” but he also noted that past experience has taught him a court order is “necessary to ensure these sorts of safety measures are actually implemented,” even for those with which ICE has voluntarily agreed to comply.

Chhabria ordered ICE to stop placing new detainees in Yuba County Jail until there are no positive Covid-19 tests among staff and detainees for two weeks. He also required rapid tests be given to any detainee that has symptoms or was in close contact with someone who tested positive. He further mandated that all detainees be tested each week until two weeks pass with no positive results.

ICE must ensure all detainees who test positive or have symptoms are isolated from others. Cells and bunks must be cleaned and disinfected before detainees are assigned to them. The order also forbids housing detainees in the “Old Jail” section of the facility, an often cramped, open-air area without solid walls in which the virus can spread easily. Detainees must be provided with fresh, disposable masks daily until two weeks pass with no positive Covid-19 tests.

Chhabria ordered ICE to submit daily status updates on the number of immigrant detainees, county prisoners and staff members who test positive or have symptoms. The reports must also explain where detainees are being housed in the jail, including specific locations for symptomatic detainees and those who tested positive. Additionally, the reports must detail plans and implementation status for the testing, quarantine and isolation of class members, prisoners and staff.

ICE must also show cause why a preliminary injunction should not be issued to keep imposing those conditions on the agency. A hearing on the injunction will be held Jan. 7 if ICE opposes it.

Attorney Emilou MacLean of the San Francisco Public Defenders Office, which also represents the ICE detainees, said a court order was needed because the agency has a track record of not putting in place minimum safeguards to protect immigrants being held at its detention centers.

“It is evident that ICE failed to do the bare minimum: they failed to have a plan to protect those in their custody, they failed to monitor a situation, and they failed to take basic public health precautions,” MacLean said by email Thursday. “The result was a situation which quickly spiraled out of control.”

The new restrictions for Yuba County Jail come three weeks after Chhabria imposed a set of stringent Covid-19 containment protocols on the Mesa Verde detention center in Bakersfield. Following a five-day evidentiary hearing, the judge found ICE and its private contractor GEO Group “cannot be trusted on their own to provide reasonably safe conditions to detainees.”

The Mesa Verde injunction issued Dec. 3 requires the facility to cap the number of detainees housed in each dorm at 26, isolate the sick and administer rapid-result tests to all detainees and staff on a weekly basis. Mesa Verde can house up to 400 detainees, but only 44 detainees were being held there as of Monday, according to ICE.

Yuba County Jail can hold up to 420 inmates including 210 immigrant detainees, but the jail currently operates at 55% capacity with 211 county prisoners and 20 immigrant detainees. Over the last two weeks, 79 inmates and detainees have tested positive for Covid-19 at the jail, including three ICE detainees. One of those three detainees has since been released on bond, according to ICE.

More than 400 immigrant detainees at Yuba County Jail and Mesa Verde sued ICE this past April, claiming the agency refused to take any meaningful action to prevent Covid-19 from spreading at the facilities. In response, Judge Chhabria started a process for reviewing bail applications that enabled many detainees to be released to reduce crowding.

Hundreds of detainees were released through that process, Freeman said. There are now about 64 immigrant detainees being held at Mesa Verde and Yuba County Jail, down at least 84% from the more than 400 detainees held at those facilities in April.

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