May 3, 2020
By Kimberly Gonzalez

As the United States continues to be taken by storm with the increasing amounts of COVID-19 cases across cities and states, many zip codes are becoming the epicenters of disease within their region. Poor conditions found at privately-owned correctional facilities and detention centers are constituting higher levels of known diagnoses among immigrants. Across the nation, various immigration detention centers— most under the authority of CoreCivic, a private prison company— are amongst the worst hit by COVID-19. While many perceive that correctional settings such as immigration detention centers are better suited for pandemic response due to the presumptive isolationist possibilities, data provides that COVID-19 tends to spread at an exponential rate within CoreCivic owned facilities compared to other environments. The lack of space provided for acceptable social distancing and the inability to control the amount of unquarantined contact that faculty and detainees face inside a detention center are just a few explanations for this disparity.

San Diego’s Otay-Mesa Detention Center, an ICE for-profit immigrant prison run by CoreCivic, has become the leading detention facility in reported COVID-19 cases amongst all centers across the nation, with a devastating 111 positively tested detainees as of April 24. Many organizations have already taken action, including the ACLU’s San Diego chapter, which filed a class-action lawsuit demanding a reduction in detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center. They cited a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S Constitution, which prohibits confinement in environments that jeopardize a person’s health and safety. Within the center, many detainees are finding ways to protest their mistreatment.

Many migrants who are currently being held at Otay-Mesa have expressed severe concern regarding the risk posed on their health and the abuses they face at the hands of facility authorities. Legal calls released on March 31 by Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a transborder organization, compiled the testimonies of migrants and exposed the abhorrent conditions they’ve been forced into. They spoke of a lack of sanitary regulation and staff members who could assist in maintaining facility cleanliness. Additionally, they expressed the lack of communication that existed between migrants and those holding them.

“Nobody comes to speak to us and nobody comes and tells us what’s going on and now we’re watching the news and somebody here in our facility has been contaminated. Nobody has come to speak to us on our safety in regards to the Coronavirus,” one migrant pointed in the call. Another expressed, “I came escaping death in my country because they wanted to kill me. And to be in this situation and get sick here and die here as well is something very difficult.”

In addition to publicizing their conditions, detained migrants planned hunger strikes that took place in the first weeks of April. The strikes were held as a call to federal authorities for the release of as many detainees as possible— as one migrant spoke, ‘before it is too late.’ Currently, of the 111 COVID-19 positive detainees at Otay-Mesa, 67 do not find themselves being held for criminal reasons; instead, they are awaiting deportation or immigration court cases, which presents ICE with broad authority in letting people out of detention. As reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, almost 60 percent of those detained in the last few weeks had no criminal convictions.

While the option to release detainees who pose no criminal risk remains, ICE has decided to tackle COVID-19 within their detention centers through different means. The CDC has clearly expressed that facilities like detention centers should avoid “cohorting”—the act of quarantining those who are infected with COVID-19 with those who have come in contact with the virus together—because it only further assists transmission. However, because ICE has refused to release detainees, it is currently relying on cohorting within detention centers as a way to combat further infection.

Conditions continue to worsen at these facilities as the Otay-Mesa’s ability to care for their detainees wane. On April 10, a legal call by Pueblo Sin Fronteras revealed detainees were being pepper-sprayed and removed from their cells in handcuffs after protesting the forced signing of contracts referred to as “acknowledgment forms”; these contracts would release CoreCivic of complications that would come from wearing masks. These contracts were written in English while a majority of the detainees do not speak it. At that time, migrants were not provided masks if they refused to sign the forms. As a result, on April 15, former presidential candidate and senator, Kamala Harris, alongside Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, and Rep. Juan Vargas, D-California, wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General calling an investigation into Otay-Mesa.

On April 24, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (whose district includes the Otay-Mesa detention center) attempted to make a donation of 1,000 masks to the facility, with the help of other immigrant rights advocacy groups. However, they were inexplicably refused by staff at the gates of the detention center. Detainees have already revealed that they only have access to disposable surgical masks and do not receive a replacement for weeks.

​Edited by Bella Perreira