Advocates say to keep community safe, local law enforcement must limit number of people detained, incarcerated during COVID-19 pandemic

March 27, 2020 /

The American Civil Liberties Union and 13 immigrants detained in two Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in California filed a lawsuit against ICE calling for immediate release due to elevated risks of contracting COVID-19, according to a news release by ACLU’s Southern California office.

All 13 plaintiffs are especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19 due to their age and underlying medical conditions, according to the ACLU. The plaintiffs detained by ICE are currently being held at Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield and at Yuba County Jail. 

“The stakes for the release of detained persons are at an all-time high as the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak places them at an elevated risk of ailment or death,” said Stephanie Padilla, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “ICE must allow for the release of detainees not only for their safety, but for that of their staff and the community as a whole.”

Sofia Bahena Ortuno, a 64-year-old farmworker who was detained at Mesa Verde in October of 2019, suffers from hypothyroidism and diabetes.

“I am extremely worried about the coronavirus because I have been told by a lot of people that I am at risk of having a very serious reaction to COVID-19 because of my other health conditions and my age,” Bahena said. 

But after advocates pushed for her to be released, she was released from ICE custody Tuesday and is awaiting her asylum hearing with her family at home. 

Advocates are saying ICE is not taking the appropriate measures to not only protect those in detention facilities, but also the general public. One case of COVID-19 can lead to a rapid spread of the infectious virus, according to experts.

“An outbreak (within a facility) will overwhelm public health resources,” said Jordan Wells, a staff attorney for the ACLU. “It will affect all Kern County residents who depend on emergency care should they contract the virus.” 

People held in detention facilities can not practice social distancing or any other safe quarantine strategies, said Josth Stenner, a staffer with Faith in the Valley, an organization that helped push for Bahena Ortuno’s release. 

“I think people should be released so they can be with family and practice safe quarantine,” said Stenner “There is no way they can practice safe quarantine where they are.” 

GEO Group, which owns and operates Mesa Verde Detention Facility, said in a statement released March 13 there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any of its facilities. When Kern Sol News asked for an update Tuesday, GEO referred Kern Sol News to ICE. ICE did not respond to our request for comment regarding if ICE has tested anyone in Mesa Verde for COVID-19 and if there have been any cases of COVID-19 in Mesa Verde.

However, ICE confirmed Tuesday afternoon in a news release a detainee tested positive for COVID-19 at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New Jersey. The individual was placed in quarantine and is receiving care, according to a news release. 

GEO said it has updated policies to include the best practices for prevention, assessment and management of COVID-19, and has ordered swab kits to test for COVID-19. GEO did not specify who the swab kits are for. GEO also went into detail about it’s procedures for employees who may be sick, but had few protocols specifically addressing detainees in GEO’s care if they contracted COVID-19. 

GEO said it is working to address the risk of COVID-19 to those in their care and their employees. GEO said its facilities are not overcrowded, provides access to regular hand washing stations and round-the-clock access to healthcare, and are equipped with Airborne Infection Isolation Rooms.

Doctors Scott Allen and Josiah Rich, infectious disease specialists with unique expertise in medical care in detention settings who serve as medical experts for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, submitted a letter to Congress on March 19, calling into question ICE’s practices regarding keeping detainees safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are gravely concerned about the need to implement immediate and effective mitigation strategies to slow the spread of the coronavirus and resulting infections of COVID-19,” the letter reads. “Social distancing through release is necessary to slow transmission of infection.”

Local civil rights advocates are following their lead and are urging local law enforcement and the criminal justice system to take precautionary measures with incarcerated and detained individuals to limit the transmission of COVID-19 in close quarters. 

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter last week to local leaders in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, Interim Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Terry, and many others. In the letter, the ACLU says it is difficult for people in the criminal legal system to take precautionary measures. 

“Being detained, incarcerated, or forced to appear in public spaces such as courts and supervision offices, or having mobility limited even while home, can drastically limit a person’s ability to exercise the above precautions or to seek medical help,” the letter says. “And the revolving door of incarcerated individuals, jail staff, vendors, and medical professionals provides multiple avenues for COVID-19 to enter Kern County jails and exit back into our neighborhoods and homes, threatening incarcerated people as well as the entire Kern community.” 

The ACLU is urging KCSO and police departments to limit the people they detain; the sheriff to ensure facilities are empty, safe and clean as possible; the Kern County Probation Department to limit the number of people who are incarcerated or forced into public spaces; the Kern County District Attorney to limit the number of people held in jail; and Kern County judges to consider these recommendations as a way to ensure public safety. 

Wells said he has not received any feedback from the individuals who received the letter; however, Youngblood released 38 people from the Lerdo County jail last week. 

“That is far, far short of what is necessary for Lerdo to be a safe place,” Well said. 

Wells continued: “My hope is that even people, who for whatever reason are unsympathetic to this population, understand all of our lives are at stake.”

Elizabeth Sanchez

Elizabeth Sanchez is the program associate for South Kern Sol. She can be reached at