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COVID-19 Cases Spike At San Diego County Jails And Detention Centers

The bars of a jail cell are pictured in this undated image.
KPBS Staff
The bars of a jail cell are pictured in this undated image.

This is part three in a three-part series. Click here to read part one and part two.

COVID-19 cases are surging in San Diego County jails, prisons and detention centers, according to San Diego County community outbreak records obtained by KPBS.

The records show nearly 1,800 cases at these facilities from March through the end of last week, with hundreds reported in just the past few weeks. These numbers underscore the stark reality that inmates and others held in detention are among the virus’s most vulnerable targets.

Just three facilities in the county account for more than 1,100 cases, the records show. They include:

– 460 cases in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Otay Mesa Detention Center

– 441 cases in the federal government’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, San Diego

– 203 cases in the U.S. Marshals Service’s Western Region Detention Facility

It’s important to note that the records obtained by KPBS represent a snapshot in time of an ever-changing dataset. Case counts are increasing on a daily basis everywhere as the San Diego region continues to suffer through an explosion in new infections. A case in point is the Richard J Donovan state prison in South County, which has had a spike of 477 cases in just two weeks, bringing its total to 684, according to state records.

Most outbreak information for jails and detention facilities released by federal, state and local agencies has not had the same level of specificity or case counts as the data obtained by KPBS.

COVID-19 Cases Spike At San Diego County Jails And Detention Centers

For example, ICE reports 200 cases among its detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility, while KPBS records show more than double that. The ICE report does not include staff or U.S. Marshals Service inmates who are also kept at the facility. The Marshals Service did not respond to requests for comment.

The federal government also reports case numbers from Metropolitan Correctional Center, but its case count is lower than in KPBS's records.

As of Dec. 18, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department reported a cumulative total since March of 637 positive cases at its seven jails. But it has never released counts at specific jails. Here are the Sheriff’s facilities with the highest case current case counts, according to the data obtained by KPBS:

– 154 cases at the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa

– 81 cases at the Vista Detention Facility

– 59 cases at the South Bay Detention Facility in Chula Vista

– 43 cases at the downtown San Diego Central Jail

How to: Use this interactive map to search for outbreak locations by place category, address, ZIP Code, date investigation was opened or outbreak numbers. Zoom in and click the dots on the map to see the name of a location, address and how many outbreaks have occurred there. For clarification, the outbreaks column displays an outbreak out of the total number of outbreaks at the same location.

Editor’s note: This interactive map and searchable database contains records obtained by KPBS of COVID-19 community outbreaks in San Diego County. When viewing these records it is important to keep in mind that just because you visited a place that had an outbreak doesn’t necessarily mean you were exposed to the virus. And it doesn't mean you can catch COVID-19 by going there now. By the county’s definition, an outbreak occurs when three or more people with COVID-19, who aren't close contacts, were known to be in a specific location during the same 14-day period. It's possible none of them caught the virus at the outbreak location. And being the site of an outbreak doesn't necessarily mean the businesses had unsafe practices. COVID-19 is a virus that spreads easily without fear or favor. KPBS is releasing the outbreak locations because transparency and public health information is vital for our community.

Otay Mesa Detention Center

Since the onset of the pandemic, immigrants rights activists and other advocates have sounded alarms about COVID-19 spreading at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which is operated by the Tennessee-based private contractor CoreCivic.

"You don’t have to be an expert to understand that even if people are in separate cells, the fact of them living in close settings, sharing showers, microwaves, it just exposes people to what another person might be carrying," said Monika Langarica, an immigrants' rights attorney at the ACLU.

Langarica said new people brought to the center are quarantined, but in an area that's near people who are medically vulnerable. In April, the ACLU filed a lawsuit to have such detainees released from Otay Mesa. They won the release of about 100 people, but are still fighting for more.

"There is nothing forcing the federal government to detain anybody at Otay Mesa right now," Langarica said. "Not one of these people is serving a sentence as a result of contact with the criminal system."

Attorney Mayra Garcia, who also represents an Otay Mesa detainee, said her client had COVID-19 in the spring and did not receive enough care.

"If they test positive once, they don’t get retested in the future to see if they are still positive or not," Garcia said. "Even when some of them have symptoms, they don’t automatically get tested. What the hell is that? You’re in a jail of all places, you’d think they’d be more careful."

Paige Hughes, an ICE spokeswoman, disputed the number of total cases for Otay Mesa in the records obtained by KPBS, maintaining that the agency has only added 50 confirmed cases since a spring outbreak at the facility infected 150.

CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said the contractor only began overseeing medical care and COVID-19 testing on Sept. 10 and that its employees follow strict protocols.

"All detainees have been issued two cloth masks and information is posted about how to launder them," he said. "In addition, detainees can ask for a new mask at any time. Staff are required to wear masks at all times. CoreCivic Health Services tests all new intakes, and they are placed on a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival, regardless of the outcome of their testing."

Sheriff Department Jails

Inmates and community activists have also called into question safety measures taken by the Sheriff’s Department. Jesse Cannon spent two days in the Central Jail at the beginning of November after being arrested for obstructing a police officer during a protest.

Cannon claims he was put in a dirty holding cell with three other people that was littered with half-eaten food. And he said he wasn’t given a mask.

"I asked for a mask and they were like 'oh well you’re about to bail out,'" Cannon said.

This is not what's supposed to happen when people arrive at a Sheriff's jail, said Lt. Kyle Bibel, an assistant medical administrator for the Sheriff's Department. Masks are supposed to be given to arrestees by patrol deputies or police officers almost immediately.

"If that doesn't happen, then before the arrestee gets out of the car and starts the booking process, if the arrestee does not have a mask, one is given to them," Bibel said.

In addition, holding cells along with all cells in the jails are supposed to be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Holding cells must be cleaned after each new person is brought in, Bibel said.

And new prisoners are tested for COVID-19 "within hours of being brought into booking," he said.

The San Diego Central Jail on Front Street, August 7, 2018.
Claire Trageser
The San Diego Central Jail on Front Street, August 7, 2018.

Bibel confirmed there had been outbreaks at the individual jails identified in the records obtained by KPBS. He said one outbreak was caused when an inmate was moved from the George Bailey Detention Facility to the Vista Detention Facility.

"The source of the outbreak is unknown, we did thorough contact tracing, but it spread through someone who was asymptomatic," he said. "That's what's so challenging about COVID, it can bypass a temperature check."

Bibel said they can't avoid moving inmates and that sometimes people are moved to create more space for social distancing.

"We bring in newly arrested inmates, and we can't stop that flow, as long as people are coming in, space is an issue," he said. "Movement is done to create space, increase social distancing."

As cases of COVID-19 surge across the region, there is also concern that jail staff would bring in the virus. To combat that, staff are supposed to wear N-95 masks and sometimes face shields, and do temperature checks, said Dr. Jon Montgomery, the medical officer with the Sheriff's Department.

But, he said, they don't require staff to be tested.

"It is a voluntary program because you can't mandate medical tests and procedures," he said. "We highly encourage it, but we can't mandate it."

The department also does not report specifically how many jail staff have tested positive for COVID-19, even though this reporting is done at the state level. It does report that a total of 281 of all Sheriff's Department employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since March.

The Sheriff's Department doesn't publicly report COVID-19 numbers at individual jails because inmates who’ve contracted the virus are often moved from one facility to another within the system in order to provide them with better medical care, Montgomery said. This can make it appear like one facility is experiencing a large outbreak, when it isn’t.

Laila Aziz, a criminal justice advocate at the nonprofit Pillars of the Community, said the county’s refusal to release more outbreak information exacerbates community mistrust in law enforcement. Families of incarcerated people are desperate for more information, she said.

"We’ll get calls, they’ll let us know there have been outbreaks," Aziz said. "Families would be able to keep track of their loved ones. We need transparency in reporting. It would be an opportunity to learn, a specialist could look at the numbers, and say why is it spreading. If we had transparency, we could have a rapid response. We could stop the spread."

More than 1,800 cases have been reported at these facilities from March through mid-December, with hundreds reported in just the past few weeks, according to San Diego County community outbreak records obtained by KPBS.