“Because of their acute medical conditions—including leukemia, lung disease and HIV infection—the plaintiffs were at increased health risk in these detention centers, where as many as 60-100 people share close living quarters,” the groups said. “Detainees sleep in bunk beds only a few feet apart and share common areas, such as eating tables, showers, toilets and sinks. The Otay Mesa Detention Center recently emerged as the immigrant detention facility with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide.” Two detainees were released from Imperial Regional Detention Facility on Thursday night, and the remaining two from Otay Mesa the next night.
Otay Mesa has also recently made news for reportedly attempting to force detainees into signing a document that would free the private prison profiteer contracted by ICE to run the facility from any liability if the detainees wanted protective face gear. In other words: no signature, no mask. When detainees became outraged after a bilingual detainee discovered that the officer reading the contract aloud to them had skipped over that information, the facility threatened to pepper spray them. Only after detainees threatened a hunger strike were they able to get face masks without any preconditions.
“The horrifying conditions at Otay Mesa Detention Center are unacceptable,” Sen. Kamala Harris said in a statement from last weekend demanding the release of detained people from the facility. While ICE has released a few hundred folks across the U.S., it remains too slow in the face of the virus’ rapid spread. “Every day that officials continue to lock up low-risk and vulnerable people,” she continued, “is another day that people in U.S. custody along with countless facility and court personnel, legal representatives, witnesses, and family members are put at risk of a preventable death from a deadly virus.”
It shouldn’t take going to court to win the release of particularly vulnerable folks from detention, but we’re grateful for the work of these advocates nonetheless. “Our plaintiffs’ release from custody is a victory for them and their families,” Monika Langarica, an attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said. “We urge ICE to continue reducing its population of detained people in accordance with public health experts’ recommendations during this pandemic. ICE detention should never be a death sentence.”