Court slams Mesa Verde ICE facility’s COVID-19 response, orders new procedures to curb virus spread

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KGET) — A federal judge slammed the ICE processing center in Bakersfield after finding it was “totally unprepared” for a severe outbreak of COVID-19 over the summer, and ordered it to implement new procedures aimed to curb the spread of the virus.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria issued the strongly-worded ruling Thursday in partly granting a preliminary injunction sought by legal groups against the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, rejecting ICE’s request to loosen restrictions previously placed on the facility.

Mesa Verde, operated by the GEO Group, deliberately avoided testing detainees and staff over fear the results would require expensive and challenging safety measures, Chhabria said in the ruling. Mesa Verde officials failed to address safety concerns posed by the center’s unique layout, opposed bail for all detainees, even those who posed no danger and were not a flight risk, gave false testimony in court and, in one instance, obstructed proceedings by refusing to answer basic questions about the facility’s response to the virus.

“From the start of the public health crisis until now, the conduct of the key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations at Mesa Verde has been appalling,” Chhabria said.

Given those failures, the judge said, it should come as no surprise the facility had a “severe and prolonged” COVID-19 outbreak during he summer.

Among the procedures Chhabria ordered the facility to implement are the following:

  • Reserve a dorm for the purpose of isolating detainees who test positive for the virus. It must remain empty except for those who test positive.
  • Pre-intake screenings will include temperature checks and questioning about symptoms.
  • Administer a COVID-19 test that returns rapid results to all detainees and staff at Mesa Verde every week. The facility is not required to test those who have tested positive within the past 90 days unless they show symptoms.
  • Isolate in an individual cell any detainee with symptoms of COVID-19 and keep them there until a point-of-care test is confirmed by laboratory results.
  • End transfer of detainees from the facility unless necessary for medical reasons, security concerns, release or removal, or to prevent overcrowding.
  • Report to the court any new positive coronavirus tests from detainees or staff on the day the facility learns of it. Mesa Verde also must file a weekly status report with the court every Monday by 5 p.m. containing staff testing results, the number of staff not working because of the virus, intake and detainee testing results, the housing location of each detainee, information about active cases — including severe cases and hospitalizations — and the number and identity of new intakes.

Legal teams from the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Northern and Southern California, the San Francisco Office of the Public Defender, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco Bay Area, and the law firms Lakin & Wille LLP and Cooley LLP filed the motion for the injunction on behalf of the detainees.

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