The Appeal

‘We Are Scared’: Stuck Inside ICE Detention’s Coronavirus Epicenter

People incarcerated in the Otay Mesa Detention Center decry crowded units and substandard medical care as COVID-19 tears through the facility.

Read the full piece in The Appeal

A Honduran asylum seeker, finding it difficult to breathe, had to wait hours to see a doctor, resulting in a panic attack. A group of women demanding protective equipment was met with threats of pepper spray. A man who tested positive for COVID-19 was sent to recover in an isolation cell where the lights were kept on 24 hours a day, making sleep impossible. A man with HIV was incarcerated for weeks in a unit with over 100 others, waiting to catch a virus that could kill him.

In court documents, news reports, and through their attorneys, people held in Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego describe scenes of distress and confusion as COVID-19 rips through the federal facility. They and their advocates say detention center officials and government agencies are employing reckless, abusive practices during the worst pandemic in over a century.

Operated by CoreCivic, a private prison contractor, Otay Mesa currently houses roughly 660 ICE detainees and around 300 from the U.S. Marshals Service. The facility has emerged as the clear epicenter of COVID-19 in immigration detention and a hotspot in the federal system: nearly one in five positive tests among ICE detainees come from Otay Mesa.

“It’s not hyperbolic to say that this is a matter of life or death,” said Monika Langarica, immigrant rights staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “People’s lives, community health, public safety all depend on [ICE] acting responsibly right now.”

On April 22, a Marshals detainee in quarantine at Otay Mesa sent an email to her lawyer—who shared the message with The Appeal—that said only those with high fevers are getting tested. “From what my [symptoms] are the doctor said I have the virus but since I dont have a fever higher than 104 they wont test me,” wrote the woman, whose lawyer asked that she not be named because of her ongoing criminal trial. She said she was being housed with women with severe coughs “but not a high fever, so medical is doing nothing for them.”

Anecdotes like this have led advocates to believe that the number of COVID-19 cases in Otay Mesa—and in federal detention in general—is much higher than official numbers indicate. Comprehensive testing efforts in some state prisons have revealed an alarming number of asymptomatic cases, prompting concerns that the virus spreads among incarcerated populations more quickly than officials realize, while new modeling from the Government Accountability Project predicts that 72 to nearly 100 percent of ICE detainees will be infected within 90 days. ICE reported on Tuesday that 124 of its detainees and 10 of its employees at Otay Mesa had tested positive, and press reports indicate that at least 66 Marshals detainees at the facility have contracted the virus.

ICE has also reported that a total of 674 of its detainees across the country have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But ICE has tested less than 1,400 of the at least 38,000 people it has held in its custody since the outbreak, and half of those tested were positive—compared to about 16 percent nationwide. ICE did not respond to The Appeal’s questions.

“We are scared and hope something can be done for us,” the woman in Marshals detention wrote.


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