by David M. Greenwald
A federal Judge on Wednesday partially granted a temporary restraining order filed by a host of attorneys including the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the ACLU of Northern California.
Among other things, US District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ordered that additional immigration detainees be prevented from being placed into Yuba County Jail (YCJ) during the duration of the outbreak there and ordered testing and other protected measures for the those currently being confined.
In their filing this week, the plaintiffs argued that after the events at Mesa Verde and the “Court’s repeated admonitions for them to act proactively, the failure of Federal Defendants to take basic steps to protect class members during a COVID-19 outbreak that is currently ravaging Yuba County Jail is unconscionable.”
They note that while on Monday the parties reached some agreement on rapid testing protocol, “Defendants will not commit to other important measures such as the proper isolation of symptomatic and COVID-positive class members, and Defendants have not stipulated to any enforceable orders.
“Given the sorry history of Defendants’ conduct to date, vague assurances are not enough,” they argue.
The plaintiffs add, “Defendants cannot disclaim their constitutional obligation to provide reasonable health and safety to people in their custody whom they have entrusted to a contract facility, or their ability to obtain information necessary to fulfill that obligation.”
The emergency motion and order come at a time when Yuba County Jail is experiencing a severe and escalating COVID-19 outbreak.
“One Yuba County inmate tested positive more than two weeks ago. Because of the lack of planning, slow responsiveness, and egregious mismanagement of a volatile situation, the number of people testing positive increased exponentially in a matter of days,” the plaintiffs explain.
Because of this slow response, more than 70 individuals over the past two weeks in custody at Yuba County Jail have tested positive, which is 30 percent of the custodial population.
“This was predictable,” the plaintiffs argue. “Since the start of this litigation, correctional and public health experts have opined on the inevitability of an outbreak and its likely rapid spread given the conditions at YCJ.”
To make matters worse, at this point, more than nine months into the pandemics, the defendants, like others, are well aware of the way to prevent an outbreak from spiraling out of control.
“The CDC has provided guidance since as early as March concerning appropriate COVID-19 testing, quarantine, isolation, and social distancing protocols for correctional and detention Facilities,” the plaintiffs note, “Yet Defendants appear to have learned nothing from their mismanagement of the July/August 2020 outbreak at Mesa Verde, which should have taught them the need for rapid intervention and diligent adherence to public health guidance.”
Instead, the defendants, the plaintiffs argue, “continued to bury their heads in the sand, denying both knowledge and authority to take even basic steps to protect those in their custody.”
One of the chief problems the plaintiffs point to is the refusal to provide information like updates concerning the number of positive steps, no details concerning new policies and practices to separate symptomatic and COVID-positive people and no testing protocol.
Juidge Chhabria agreed with the plaintiffs here, issuing a detailed order to not only prevent additional detainees from being placed in YCJ, but also ensuring the tests are administered to those experiencing symptoms or those coming into close contact with anyone testing positive.
He ordered all members be tested at least once a week until at least two weeks have passed with zero positive tests among both study and in-custody populations.
He also ordered anyone experiencing symptoms to be isolated until testing negative and satisfying CDC criteria for release from isolation.
The judge, putting into effect cleaning protocols, ordered that in-custody people be given fresh disposable masks on a daily basis, and ordered that YCJ provide “updates in public filings with this Court by 5 p.m. daily. If the federal defendants are unable to obtain some of this information before then, the filing must explain why they have not received it and the efforts they have undertaken to obtain it.”
This order comes in response to complaints that the jail officials have “refused to provide Plaintiffs information central to ensuring the health and safety of class members. Since last Friday, Defendants have provided no updates concerning the total number of positive COVID-19 tests at the facility.”
As the plaintiffs charge, “The refusal of Defendants to enter into a stipulated agreement or to provide substantive responses to numerous requests presented by Plaintiffs is particularly concerning in light of prior actions which exacerbated transmission risks. YCJ knowingly left COVID-positive individuals in dormitories and shared housing arrangements, apparently because of a lack of either a plan or identified space to house those who tested positive.”
They also “refused to quarantine close contacts in accordance with CDC guidelines, and instead moved people around the facility repeatedly; they apparently continue to do so, even when they are close contacts of people who tested positive.”
Furthermore, “For more than one week after the introduction of COVID-19 into the facility, they failed to administer facility-wide testing, offering testing initially to the one known affected housing unit.”
Moreover, “Prior to the outbreak, Defendants showed a lack of concern for COVID-19 public health precautions. They abandoned social distancing commitments they previously made to the Court—housing people in close quarters in housing units or cells they previously acknowledged as incapable of permitting adequate social distancing.”
Not surprisingly, the number of cases, once COVID appeared, surged and “the crisis continues to grow.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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