SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Citing the “abominable performance of those who run it,” a federal judge Thursday ordered a privately-run California detention center to enact strict Covid-19 containment measures, finding immigration officials and contractors “cannot be trusted on their own to provide reasonably safe conditions to detainees.”
Under an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Vincent Chhabria, the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center near Bakersfield, California must cap the number of detainees housed in each dorm at 26, isolate the sick and administer rapid-results tests to all detainees and staff on a weekly basis.
"If a detainee tests positive and is in a dorm, the defendants shall immediately offer tests to all other detainees in that dorm, as well as any other detainees who had close contact with the detainee who tested positive. The dorm, and any close contacts, shall also be quarantined for 14 days,” Chhabria wrote in his 26-page order Thursday. “If any detainee refuses testing, the defendants shall report that fact to class counsel within two hours, and shall re-offer a test to that detainee after communicating with class counsel.”
The facility run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractor GEO Group has been under a strict temporary restraining order following a critical outbreak over the summer, one that Chhabria found they were unprepared for and did little to try to prevent.
At the height of the outbreak, there were 103 detainees at Mesa Verde and 57 tested positive for Covid-19. Three were hospitalized.
According to a status report submitted to the court on Wednesday, 24 of the current 45 detainees at Mesa Verde have tested positive for Covid-19 at some point, and all have since recovered.
There are 12 GEO Group employees and one medical staff member who are off work after testing positive.
ICE and GEO Group have asked that the restraining order be lifted now that the outbreak has abated, an idea Chhabria roundly rejected.
“This argument is impossible to accept, particularly given the unique layout of the facility and the abominable performance of those who run it,” he wrote. “Not to mention the recent surge in Covid-19 cases among facility staff — cases we might still be unaware of if not for the temporary restraining order.”
In June, Chhabria ordered ICE to stop admitting new detainees to Mesa Verde without first ensuring they have proper testing protocols in place and a plan to isolate those who are positive.
He made the order just after Alexander Pham, an ICE officer in charge of overseeing the facility at the time, admitted to falsely stating that new arrivals from other facilities with Covid-19 outbreaks were being isolated for 14 days when in fact they were putting all new intakes into the general population dorms without testing them.
By the end of July, there was still no site-specific contingency plan in place and ICE resisted testing, even as cases began rising rapidly.
His Thursday ruling follows a week-long evidentiary hearing on Covid-19 safeguards at Mesa Verde, where Chhabria uncovered another agency attempt to cover up its indifference to the health risks at the facility.
He found Deputy Field Office Director Erik Bonnar falsely testified that he decided to try to empty out the women’s dorm back in March. Under questioning by Chhabria, Bonnar said there were no emails to support this assertion, since all the discussions took place in-person at his office. Bonnar then admitted that he had been working from home since March.
“Considering these facts and the entire record in this case, along with Bonnar’s demeanor during the hearing, the court has no choice but to find that Bonnar’s testimony is false,” Chhabria wrote. “These false statements made under oath regarding the women’s dorm, along with the false declaration from Pham about how Mesa Verde was handling incoming detainees, further underscore that the defendants cannot be trusted to conduct themselves responsibly as it relates to the safety of the detainees.”
GEO Group did not respond to an email request for comment Thursday. An ICE spokesperson said the agency is reviewing Chhabria’s decision but declined to comment further.
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