California ICE detention center officials ignored COVID-19 protocols: attorneys

Detainees at Mesa Verde held a hunger strike last week challenging their continued detention in unsafe conditions amid this pandemic. (Kern abolitionist drone)

Immigrants being held in a California ICE detention center are accusing federal agents and private prison contractors of ignoring COVID-19 protocols and then misleading a judge about their safety protocols, such as how far apart the bunk beds were placed from each other, according to court documents. 

The documents, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, allege that ICE agents at the Mesa Verde ICE detention center in Bakersfield, as well as the private prison company, GEO Group Inc., acted in a manner that "amplified the risk of coronavirus when the infections spiked in July and August. 

In mid-August, 54 of the 104 detained people at Mesa Verde had tested positive for coronavius. 

The immigrants are represented by the ACLU of Northern and Southern California, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the private firm. Lakin & Wille LLP, and Cooley LLP.  The detainees include: Angel de Jesus Zepeda Rivas, Brenda Rubi Ruiz Tovar, Lawrence Kuria Mwara, Luciano Gonzalo
Mendoza Jeronimo, Coraima Yaritza Sanchez Nuñez, Javier Alfaro, Dung Tuan Dang, Juan Jose Erazo Herrera, Rajnish Rajnish, and Willian Matias Rauda. 

Detainees have repeatedly gone on labor and hunger strikes to protest conditions at Mesa Verde, which they claim put them at risk of contracting coronavirus.

“These documents show that high-level ICE officials were fully aware that their facilities were a powder keg for COVID infection,” said Deputy San Francisco Public Defender Emi MacLean. “Not only did they fail to take steps to avoid an outbreak, they made it worse and misled the public about what they were doing.” 

An ICE spokesman did not immediately respond for comment on Wednesday. 

However, in court documents, the U.S. Department of Justice said that Mesa Verde is now at 25% of its capacity, which allows detainees to remain socially distant

ICE's  website states, in part, that as early as March, the agency convened a working group of doctors and detention efforts to practice "enhanced steps to minimize the spread of the virus."

ICE’s detained population "has steadily dropped by more than 7,000 individuals" since March 1 as a result of releases and the decrease in book-ins when compared to this time last year, the agency stated.

But those steps are not enough, the plaintiffs' lawyers argued. And in their new filing to the court, they allege ICE agents: 

  • Waited four days to offer testing to a dormitory exposed to a detainee who had tested positive, despite having tests on-site that produce rapid results. In the two weeks that it took for the test results to come back, the facility staff "crammed" over 50 people who had been exposed to COVID-19 into a single dorm. By the time they did, the lawyers presented exhibits that showed 90% of a combined dorm had become infected. 
  • Compromised medical standards and knowingly left people with symptoms in a crowded dorm where social distancing was impossible after the outbreak started. Tests would later reveal that everyone who had been identified as symptomatic was already infected with COVID-19 at that time. 
  • Misrepresented to the court the distance between bunk beds in its facility to support a claim that they allowed for adequate social distance when they did not. 
  • Intentionally downplayed risk factors and symptoms to avoid testing. ICE agents tested zero detainees for COVID-19 symptoms before July 29 – the day the outbreak started, the lawyers allege.
  • Ignored the growing threat of staff transmission. 

The lawyers also allege that ICE began testing in August only out of fear of receiving a restraining order. 

That same month, the U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria intervened, preventing any new detainees from being booked at Mesa Verde and requiring weekly testing of staff and those at the facility. 

Now ICE and GEO contractors have asked the court to lift these restrictions. 

An evidentiary hearing in the matter is scheduled for Nov. 16. 

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez