U.S. District Court Shocker: ICE Had No Plan to Deal with COVID-19 Outbreak at Mesa Verde Detention Center

By Kianna Anvari

SAN FRANCISCO – The Mesa Verde ICE detention center—where more than half of detainees and at least one-quarter of staff were infected with COVID-19—had no contingency plan for an outbreak, even though the virus was running rampant throughout U.S. prisons.

The revelation came from ICE officials testifying on the third day of a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court to decide if the court should continue to oversee the embattled Bakersfield facility.

A brief filed last week charged that ICE and other officials misled the court, and increased the risk of virus transmission, including ignoring CDC protocols. District Court intervened in August and ordered no new detainees should be “introduced,” and ordered weekly testing of staff and detainees. Now ICE wants to lift these restrictions.

The evidentiary hearing in the matter is before Federal District Court Judge Vince Chhabria in the Northern District of California, where ICE officials are testifying under oath. Among those expected to testify are ICE Deputy Field Office Director Erik Bonnar and Acting Deputy Field Office Director Moises Becerra.

In fact, it was Bonnar who Wednesday admitted ICE had no plan for dealing with an outbreak.

In cross-examination, Martin Schenker of Cooley LLP for the plaintiffs, presented numerous declarations made by Bonnar for this hearing.

While he emphasized that Mesa Verde took steps to empty out the women’s dormitory in direct questioning, Bonnar’s April 24 declaration did not identify this as one of the steps to reduce detainees at the facility.

After Schenker asked three times if it would be a mis-characterization to say that ICE made an effort to empty the women’s dorm. Bonnar, who kept side-stepping a direct answer, finally said yes.

“And that’s because ICE had not decided to empty the women’s dorm, correct?” said Schenker. “We were taking steps to do so,” Bonnar responded.

Judge Chhabria interjected, and inquired whether there was any email traffic about clearing the women’s dorm, to which Bonnar said no.

“Don’t you find that odd?” said Judge Chhabria.

Bonnar said that such conversations were likely in person, before he started working from home. Judge Chhabria asked when that was, and he said late March. Judge Chhabria then asked if Bonnar had searched for emails from April or May, and he responded no.

Shenker then presented evidence showing that at least a dozen detainees arrived at Mesa Verde when the medical unit was full. He noted that during a three-day period in July, the facility had 16 new arrivals, close to the level of intake prior to March 11.

And, in a telling moment, when asked if ICE had a contingency plan for an outbreak, Bonnar admitted ICE did not.

Bonnar said on July 10 that significant numbers of detainees at the facility may not agree to testing, which is why they had not tested all the detainees. Bonnar provided his testimony today in court to the U.S. Attorney, Shiwon Choe.

However, a court document filed on Aug. 18, 2020, was presented Wednesday, purported to show that just one detainee at Mesa Verde refused COVID-19 testing.

Bonnar stated that as of March 11, 2020, the Mesa Verde facility housed 355 detainees—73 of those were women living in their own dorm unit.

Bonnar explained that ICE constantly reviewed who was in custody in order to comply with CDC standards. He said they released the highest risk detainees such as women and people with medical conditions, after ensuring that their criminal history did not make them threats to the community.

Bonnar said ICE voluntarily released about half of the detainees, keeping 180 at Mesa Verde.

During his visits to the facility, Bonnar noticed that detainees were not wearing masks nor adhering to social distancing guidelines.

When asked about early testing protocols, he said that only those with symptoms or known exposure were tested. Wellpath, the medical company onsite, would make the decision on who would be tested.

It wasn’t until a May 18 policy memo from GEO Secure Services, Mesa Verde’s private prison management group, that Bonnar saw full facility testing available.

Bonnar told Choe that the facility would “make space for people who tested positive.”

He added that there was no place to house people who would not consent to testing. Since they were housed with those who did consent, he did not understand the need to cohort them from each other.

According to Bonnar, ICE still did not require testing for everyone because the test kits acquired by GEO were not the ones recommended by ICE Health Service Corps.

The San Francisco field office then drafted a plan for intake and saturation testing on June 3, since separating those already housed together seemed impractical.

Bonnar said that positive cases were to be housed in any empty cells. He alleged that eventually they cleared out a whole housing unit for positive cases.

After gaining approval, Mesa Verde began using a rapid Abbott COVID-19 testing machine on June 29, and Bonnar said that positive cases would be isolated for 14 days and intake would shut down as a result.

The new intake plan required all intakes to be quarantined and cohorted, he added. And if space ran out, intakes would not be admitted to Mesa Verde. One officer, according to Bonnar, was responsible for identifying which other facilities had bed space.

“He has been doing this for 20 years, so it is not a new concept for ICE,” said Bonnar.

Pointedly, Bonnar denied the allegations that ICE feared positive cases, alleging, “We wanted to test everyone, regardless.”

Kianna Anvari will earn a Master’s in Public Administration from San Diego State University in May 2021. She is from San Diego.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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