A hallway in the S-Wing of the Yuba County Jail, taken in 2017. Immigrant advocates have raised the alarm about a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility. (Courtesy Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP)
Immigrant advocates say a growing outbreak of COVID-19 at the Yuba County Jail is putting the people held there at risk, including some who are medically vulnerable.
On Dec. 16, Yuba County Jail officials closed the facility to visits after they identified seven confirmed cases. Since then, according to attorneys, the number of people infected has increased to 78, which is more than 30% of the total jail population.
While the majority of people housed at the Yuba County Jail are in county custody, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held there as well. In April, the San Francisco Public Defender's office filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of ICE detainees at the Yuba jail and the Mesa Verde detention facility in Bakersfield, citing dangerous conditions.
Katie Kavanagh, a senior attorney for the San Francisco-based California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, says she spoke with two detainees who have tested positive for COVID-19. Kavanagh says they described "disgusting conditions," including "trash, gum, fingernails and excrement," and reported using a bathroom shared by those with and without COVID-19 that is "not cleaned between uses."
Over the summer, ICE detainees inside the facility went on a hunger strike for five days to draw attention to the situation.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who's presiding over the case, ruled that lawyers could apply for the release of ICE detainees on a case-by-case basis. He also ordered in June that ICE and the jail take precautions such as keeping detainees out of the older, more crowded side of the jail and isolating COVID-19 symptomatic people.
But immigrant advocates say those protections have begun to erode.
"We saw detainees starting to be moved back into the old side of the jail, and later on [housed] two to a cell," said Kelly Engel Wells, a San Francisco deputy public defender. "We received reports of symptomatic individuals who were not being isolated and tested as the protocol required. And that just set up the perfect storm for the first positive case that happened about two weeks ago."
Kavanagh estimates the jail currently houses around 20 ICE detainees out of the total 235 people held there.
One is her client Ruperto Robles, 59, who's been detained in the facility since November 2019. Originally from Mexico, he has lived in the United States with a green card for 30 years, Kavanagh said, but was transferred to ICE for deportation after some contact with law enforcement. Robles contracted COVID-19 at Yuba, and is considered medically vulnerable due to a history of diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and obesity.
"He was considered so high risk in terms of COVID that he has been held in isolation for most of the pandemic, which has been really harmful to his mental health," Kavanagh said. "And despite claiming that they were isolating him to protect him, he was moved within the jail to four different locations within the past two weeks, including into locations where people were later testing positive for COVID and removed out."
Speaking through an interpreter, Robles told KQED he had been feeling healthy until he was transferred around the facility.
Kavanagh also said she and Robles received conflicting information about whether or not he had COVID-19, something that only came to light as part of the class-action lawsuit.
"Two days ago, at night, they told class counsel that Ruperto was positive for COVID. In the morning, they said, 'Never mind, he's not positive.' And then two hours later, on the status conference, they said, 'oops, never mind. He is positive,'" she said. "So what we're seeing is just a very high level of incompetence and disregard for human life."
Kavanagh has filed a request for Robles to be released to a hotel room where he can recover from the virus and isolate while his case is decided by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. An immigrant rights group, NorCal Resist, has committed to pay for the hotel room and provide Robles with post-release support.
Robles said he would feel safer in a hotel room, and his health would more likely improve if he was removed from the jail outbreak.
As part of the lawsuit, the San Francisco Public Defender's Office filed a new motion for a temporary restraining order Wednesday, asking that Chhabria mandate additional safety protocols inside the facility, including providing weekly testing, individually isolating all symptomatic individuals and releasing people from custody, especially those who are medically vulnerable.
"We're now 10 months in and we have the first positive case — which actually is quite lucky that this has taken this long — and yet it still seems to have caught Yuba County officials by surprise. They seem to have had absolutely no plan," Wells said. "That's one of the most frustrating things, is that all of this could really have been avoided if basic precautions had been in place."
Yuba County Jail officials did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for ICE said he could not comment on the outbreak at Yuba due to pending litigation.