As COVID-19 Surges Through Prisons, Guards and Inmates Sue

Erica Brooks poses for a family portrait with her husband and son at the beach in La Jolla in 2018.  (Courtesy of Erica Brooks)

When she started working at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego two years ago, Erica Brooks was the master scheduler, so she got to know all the detention officers.

This March, Brooks said she was working as a detention officer when she started hearing that her co-workers were getting sick with the coronavirus. But for weeks, she said, there was no official word from her bosses at the facility, which holds immigrants awaiting deportation hearings and federal defendants awaiting trial.

Her employer, CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest private prison companies, handed out a flyer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that encouraged handwashing, she said, but the company wasn’t taking obvious steps to protect inmates and staff.

“There's things that you can do to prevent it,” Brooks said. “But those things weren't being done.”

As late as the end of March, when the state was under shelter-in-place orders to limit the spread of the coronavirus, meals were still served in the “chow hall” with hundreds of people from different housing units congregating together, Brooks said. Radios, keys and handcuffs all passed between officers throughout the day, and they weren’t getting sanitized, she said, and staff members were not screened for symptoms when they arrived for their shifts. In addition, there was no social distancing at the daily staff briefings.

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“There'd be sometimes 30 to 50 people in a small room, talking,” she said. “That wasn't safe to me, sitting in that room with whomever, asymptomatic or someone sick.”

Brooks was anxious. By the end of March, she had stopped going to work.

That was before the number of infections at the detention center climbed to more than 250 — the largest outbreak at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility anywhere in the country. And on May 7, ICE officials confirmed that a 57-year-old man detained at Otay Mesa had died of COVID-19.

On May 29, Brooks sued her employer CoreCivic. At least two other officers from Otay Mesa have done the same.

Ryan Gustin, a spokesman for CoreCivic, said the company wouldn’t comment on pending litigation. But he said in a statement, “The Otay Mesa Detention Center has taken affirmative and proactive measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, and followed the most current guidance from medical and industry experts on best practices and recommendations for safe operations. Our practices have evolved and changed as the CDC guidance and recommendations have evolved over time.”

Gustin said that meals are now served in individual housing units, staff are now screened when arriving for work and detainees with COVID-19 are housed in “cohorts.” He also said protective masks have been provided to all staff and detainees.

That didn’t happen until after detainees protested on April 10, demanding masks.

The lawsuits filed by Brooks and her co-workers come at a time of growing scrutiny of the pandemic’s severe impacts on essential front line workers, and also on incarcerated people — both groups disproportionately comprise people of color, including Erica Brooks, who is African American.

Lethal Outbreaks in Prisons

Massive — and lethal — outbreaks of the coronavirus have been surging through not only the Otay Mesa facility, but a number of state and federal prisons in California.

As of Monday, 3,018 state prison inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, along with 408 employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The biggest outbreaks have been at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, Avenal State Prison, the California Institution for Men and the California Institution for Women. And 12 inmates have died, all at the California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County, as well as one CDCR staff member.

A pair of federal prisons at Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County, have confirmed cases in 42 staff members, as well as 1,069 inmates — four of whom have died, as of Monday. And the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, in Los Angeles, had a total of 17 employees and 690 inmates with COVID-19 — including nine inmates who have died.

At a hearing last week before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, public health expert Dr. Scott Allen warned that prisons and detention centers are “densely populated and poorly designed to prevent the inevitable rapid and widespread dissemination” of COVID-19.

“This virus does not care who you are or what uniform you wear,” Allen, a retired professor of medicine from UC Riverside who serves as a health expert for the Department of Homeland Security, said in written testimony to the judiciary committee. “It can easily move in and out of facilities undetected in the absence of aggressive testing-based surveillance and containment.”

‘They Are Left to Die’

One of the inmates sick with the virus at Terminal Island federal prison is Lance Wilson, 35, an African American man from Modesto with hypertension and asthma. Terminal Island houses more than 1,000 low-security inmates with chronic and complex medical conditions in a facility that was designed for 800.

In a series of letters Wilson wrote after the prison cut off email and telephone access in April, reportedly to prevent the spread of the virus, he told his brother Jacque Wilson that his bunk was only two feet away from his cellmate — and that the growing number of ill inmates were not being separated from healthy ones.

Lance Wilson with his daughter at her birthday party in 2014.
Lance Wilson with his daughter at her birthday party in 2014. (Courtesy of the Wilson family)

On April 29, Lance wrote, “People are sick all around me. They are giving us a death sentence. The likelihood of becoming infected is enormous.” Three days later, he tested positive for COVID-19.

Jacque is an attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office and said Lance is serving a sentence for playing a role in a prescription drug theft ring. His brother’s story reflects the experience of many incarcerated people during the pandemic.

Jacque said his brother has had chills, headaches and shortness of breath but has not been seen by a doctor and hasn’t had his temperature taken since May 8.

“My heart just bleeds for those individuals who are locked up,” said Jacque. “There's no ifs, ands or buts about it: They are left to die.”

Jacque said he has helped his brother file a petition for compassionate release. On May 16, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit, with Lance Wilson as a lead plaintiff, that calls on the Federal Bureau of Prisons to release inmates and ensure safe social distancing and sanitary measures at Terminal Island.

“The lawsuit seeks to have Lance released to home confinement,” said Jacque. “The Constitution requires that prison officials provide a safe environment for those people that are in custody. Where Lance is at now is not a safe environment. It’s not a safe environment for anyone.”

A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit.

The suit is one of numerous legal actions filed around California and across the country seeking to protect incarcerated people from the coronavirus. A number of lawsuits filed against ICE have led to the release of dozens of detainees, especially medically vulnerable people, at Otay Mesa and other facilities in California.

ICE has also been reducing the number of people it is holding in detention during the pandemic. The number of detainees has dropped to 25,000 nationally — less than half what it was a year ago when the Trump Administration held a record 52,000 immigrants in custody.

Though ICE has only tested 20% of the people in its custody for COVID-19, more than half of those tests have come back positive.

A group of detainees at ICE’s Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, say the agency is not doing enough to protect them and last Thursday announced a hunger strike in protest.

‘How Am I Supposed to Protect Myself?’

As the number of cases at the Otay Mesa Detention Center grew this spring, detention officer Brooks said she scrambled to figure out how to protect herself, her husband and her 3-year-old son. When she came home from work, she would strip off her uniform in the garage and scrub down in the shower before saying hello to her little boy.

Brooks is just 30 years old, but because she’s overweight she fears she’s at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19. And, she said, she’s keenly aware that her family is African American. Statistically, African Americans are more than twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as people of other races. And Brooks didn’t want to become a statistic.

“My coworker, she worked in receiving, she got sick with COVID. She went home. Her husband got sick with COVID. They both went to the ICU. And her husband did not make it,” said Brooks. “I don't want to be her.”

Brooks said she was never issued a mask by her employer, and she and other officers were told they shouldn’t wear them because masks would intimidate the detainees. But Brooks said detainees told her they feared guards could be bringing the virus into the facility and wanted them to wear masks.

When a nurse at the facility gave her a mask, Brooks said she started wearing it on the job. Then a supervisor approached her during an overnight shift, in the wee hours of the morning on March 28.

“Basically he said, I want to let you know that it's a violation of a direct order to wear your mask,” said Brooks. “So we got into a conversation and I asked him, ‘Well, how am I supposed to protect myself?’ And when I told him that, he looked at me and he said, ‘Look at your I.D. card. It's a number, not a name. Everybody's disposable.’”

That was the last straw for Brooks. She took a month off from work before realizing she couldn’t go back. She said it has been tough financially — she’s getting unemployment benefits, but she had to cash out her retirement account to cover the bills. Still, she has no regrets.

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As of Monday, 29 of her CoreCivic coworkers have been infected, along with 11 ICE staff members at Otay Mesa. In addition, 162 ICE detainees and 71 federal inmates there have tested positive for COVID-19.

In her lawsuit, Brooks and her attorneys write that CoreCivic failed to train detention officers “on how to handle infectious diseases, yet they are on the front lines of interacting with potentially infected persons.” They are asking the court to award punitive damages to push CoreCivic to better protect staff in the future.

“As an officer, I gave everything that I had to the detainees, who are human. You know, we're all human,” she said. “When you give your all to something and you continuously try to put your best foot forward … and then you get told, ‘You’re number, not a name’ ... I just was devastated.”

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Brooks’s husband, an electrical engineer, has been going to work at job sites, but she thinks his company is taking the right safety precautions. For herself, she said she’s relieved to be done with a job where she felt helpless and unsafe. She said she’s spending a lot of time with her son now and looking for a different career path.