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Coronavirus

Where are the Borderland’s largest known virus outbreaks? Detention and psychiatric centers

ICE Otero County Processing Center
Bob Moore/El Paso Matters
The sign marking the entrance to the ICE Otero County Processing Center.

EL PASO, Texas -- The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says a coronavirus outbreak at El Paso's Rogelio Sanchez State Jail has now grown to infecting 32 inmates and 11 employees.

That's a total of 43 cases there, up ten from the 33 cases reported a week ago.

With that announcement, the Borderland region's largest known outbreaks have now been in detention facilities and at a psychiatric center.

At last count a week ago, the widely-reported outbreak at the Texas state-run El Paso Psychiatric Center had reached 53 cases with one death of an employee of the facility. Health officials indicated 300 staff and patients had been tested, and 48 of those infected have now recovered.

But it appears the worst of the large outbreaks to occur in the Borderland area just came to light this week. It involves 69 detainees and employees that been infected at a private incarceration facility near Chaparral in southern New Mexico.

The infected include 40 detainees and six employees at the Otero County Processing Center, which is operated for Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and 31 inmates at the adjacent Otero County Prison Facility, which holds people for the U.S. Marshals Service and New Mexico Corrections Department. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham harshly criticized ICE and the Marshals Service for allowing conditions that led to the outbreak. She said the state had little control over federal facilities, though she vowed to use her powers to force improvements.

“They didn’t they didn’t take any of our standards for how you visit, how you are training staff, what you do for infection control, mandating that guards and staff have masks. And this is a huge failure in the federal system,” Lujan Grisham said earlier this week.

The governor said New Mexico will require testing of all detainees and inmates at the Otero facility and other New Mexico detention facilities that contract with federal agencies. She said she expects federal resistance but vowed to use state and local regulatory powers to try to push compliance.

“I’d like to tell you that that is easy. Certainly it should make sense to the entire world that this is another federal government issue. They weren’t doing it. They are very difficult to work with in this context. And it’s a total violation, I think, of states’ rights in terms of our opportunity and obligation to adhere to safe public health practices,” Lujan Grisham said.

The facilities are run by Management and Training Corporation, a private company that operates 26 prison and detention facilities across the country, including another in New Mexico’s Cibola County.

“We are following all CDC guidelines for prisons and detention centers,” company spokeswoman Issa Arnita. She also provided an attachment of steps the company says it has taken to respond to COVID-19.

An ICE spokeswoman said that detention facilities in the El Paso area reduced their population last month to no more than 70 percent of capacity to allow for social distancing. The Otero County Processing Center has a capacity of just over 1,000 beds.

“Detainees at the OCPC are provided with, and required to wear, face masks. ICE and security staff are provided face masks and gloves, which they are required to wear at all times in the facility,” the agency said in a statement. “In addition to providing detainees with soap for the shower and hand soap for hand washing, alcohol-based sanitizer is placed in visitor entrances, exits, waiting areas and available to staff and detainees in the secure setting. Soap and paper towels are available in bathrooms and work areas within the facilities and routinely replenished.”

The sprawling facility off of U.S. 54 in southern New Mexico, about 10 miles north of the Texas state line, houses a variety of detainees and inmates from different jurisdictions.

In addition to the six workers who tested positive at the ICE facility, another 45 have been quarantined because of exposure during the outbreak, the New Mexico Department of Health reported.

In addition to the 24 Marshals Service inmates who tested positive, another handful of tests are pending, according to the Department of Health. People held by the Marshals Service in this region usually are serving sentences for illegal entry or re-entry into the United States.

Another part of the facility holds Otero County inmates who are awaiting trial on state charges. More than 150 of those inmates were given Covid-19 tests this week, the Department of Health reported. Test results are pending.

Margaret Brown Vega, a volunteer for AVID in the Chihuahuan Desert, which visits and advocates for people in ICE detention, said detainees at Otero are frightened.

“One of them said, we did not bring this into the facility. We’ve been here. We’ve been locked up here. It’s the people who work here who brought it in. And then they didn’t take careful measures to protect us. And now we’re sick and we didn’t do anything. We’ve been trapped in here all this time,” Brown Vega said. 

Detainees at the Otero ICE facility sleep in bunk beds in a dormitory style setting, with as many as 50 people in a room, she said. After the first case at Otero was reported in early April, officials made some changes, Brown Vega said.

“That’s when some measures began to be taken seriously. But even then didn’t seem to be consistent. So, for example, some guards would wear masks, some guards wouldn’t. Some guards would wear gloves, some guards wouldn’t. But none of the people who were detained were given anything at that time to protect themselves. No masks, no gloves or anything like that,” she said.

Brown Vega said detainees exposed to someone testing positive are quarantined in large groups and not allowed to leave their barracks except for medical care.

Detainees testing positive are placed in medical isolation for two weeks,she said. “At Otero, what they really mean is a solitary confinement cell. And I think it’s important to point out that 15 days in solitary confinement is considered torture by the UN,” Brown Vega said.

Brown Vega said she believes testing has been increased in the Otero ICE detention facilities in recent days in response to requests from migrant advocates. She said she believes about 700 people are still detained in the Otero ICE facility, despite pleas from religious and political leaders that ICE release detainees who pose no threat to the community.

People in ICE detention facilities aren’t awaiting criminal proceedings. They are in civil proceedings to determine their immigration status.

It’s unclear how many people are held in the Otero County Prison Facility, which houses people convicted of state and federal crimes. MTC says it has a capacity for 1,400 inmates.

MTC says it employs 302 people at the Otero County Prison Facility and 305 at the Otero County Processing Center.

El Paso / Health / New Mexico / News / Top Stories

El Paso Matters

KVIA ABC-7

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