SAN DIEGO — Gregory Arnold walked into the warden’s office April 1 as the novel coronavirus ripped through one of the largest immigration detention centers in the United States. Waiting with about 40 guards to begin his shift, he heard a captain say face masks were prohibited.
Incredulous, he and a guard who recently gave birth wanted to hear it from the boss. Arnold told Warden Christopher LaRose that he was 60 years old and lived with an asthmatic son.
“Well, you can’t wear the mask because we don’t want to scare the employees and we don’t want to scare the inmates and detainees,” Arnold recalls the warden saying.
“With all due respect, sir, that’s ridiculous.” Arnold retorted.
But the warden was unmoved. And in the weeks that followed, Otay Mesa Detention Center would see the first big outbreak at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 221 detention centers.
The origins of the outbreak are uncertain, but accounts of workers and detainees reveal shortcomings in how the private company that manages the center handled the disease: There was an early absence of facial coverings, and a lack of cleaning supplies. Symptomatic detainees were mixed with others.
Like prisons, living conditions are cramped -- except people held in immigration detention centers aren’t accused of any crimes. They wait to appear before an immigration judge to argue they should be allowed to remain in the country.
Margarita Smith, a guard who was named CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa employee of the year in 2019, said managers frequently discouraged workers from wearing masks. The topic came up during briefings in March.
“They didn’t want anyone wearing masks,” said Smith, who was tapped by CoreCivic to lead an employee morale committee in January. “They said it would frighten the detainees and make them think that we’re sick or something.”
In a court filing, LaRose, the warden, said policies on masks evolved with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Staff was required to wear them around quarantined detainees and they were optional for other employees starting the third week of March, he said, a statement that Arnold and Smith dispute.
The contractor gave masks to detainees on April 10 but on condition they sign an English-language liability waiver, according to several detainees. It quickly retreated after a tense showdown with detainees.
On March 17, the day that San Diego limited public gatherings to 50 people and closed restaurants, colleagues gathered to grill the warden.
When an employee pressed for clean rags, the warden answered twice that there was no need because the chemicals used for cleaning were very powerful, Smith said. Others asked when they would get more wipes and gels.
Gloves were hard to find, Smith said. Arnold said the ones he saw were too small for his hands. Hand sanitizer dispensers were often empty.
Feeling the warden wasn’t taking the virus seriously, Smith felt she had no choice. At 48, she missed a week of work in early March with pneumonia, has asthma and had been sick off and on since November.
She quit. “I thought to myself I’m not going to get sick again,” she said. “I just had a feeling that things weren’t going to go good.”
The detainees, of course, had no choice but to stay. Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, Mexico’s consul general in San Diego, wrote ICE April 16 about a “generalized fear” among detainees, raising concerns about mixing ill and asymptomatic detainees and requiring liability waivers for masks. A consulate hotline got more than 100 calls.
Common grievances included a lack of personal hygiene products, social distancing and masks, Gonzalez Gutierrez said. They complained that they were instructed to drink saltwater to deal with pain, and that employees were not wearing personal protective equipment.
CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said the contractor rigorously followed guidance of health officials and ICE. She noted the CDC didn’t fully embrace masks until the first week of April and said employees and detainees get face coverings without having to sign a waiver.
The virus has brought renewed scrutiny to ICE. The agency housed an all-time high of more than 56,000 people last year, with more than 500,000 bookings over a 12-month period, but policies to severely limit asylum and recent releases aimed at controlling the virus reduced the population to less than 23,000.
Overall, ICE has had 3,090 detainees test positive -- about one of every four tested. Of those, 883 are currently in custody -- the rest were released or deported. At ICE, 45 detention center workers have tested positive, along with an undisclosed number of contractors.
Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary, told reporters in May in San Diego that ICE stopped taking detainees at Otay Mesa and “one or two others” and will continue to release the elderly and medically fragile. ICE cut the population at Otay Mesa by more than half in three months to 376 from 761 on April 1.
For weeks, Otay Mesa had the dubious distinction of the most cases in the ICE system but the spread effectively stopped; only four of 168 who have tested positive are currently in custody, with 11 ICE employees and more than 30 CoreCivic workers having tested positive. ICE said in a statement that increased testing and isolating detainees who tested positive contributed to improved conditions.
Arnold and Smith have sued CoreCivic in federal court. The company will address the former guards’ accounts in court, Gilchrist said, but “we can say generally that we deny their specious and sensationalized allegations that are designed to obtain a favorable outcome in court.” Daniel Struck, an attorney for the warden, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Smith and Arnold believe the spread started with someone from outside -- perhaps a guard or lawyer. Smith called detainees “sitting ducks.”
“After the first officer got it, it was like a fire there,” Smith said. “It just took off after that.”