Federal Jail Downtown Now Has One of the Country's Worst COVID Outbreaks - Voice of San Diego

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Federal Jail Downtown Now Has One of the Country's Worst COVID Outbreaks

COVID-19 cases at the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown have surged in recent weeks – it now has one of the highest number of active cases of any federal Bureau of Prisons facility in the country.

The Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

COVID-19 cases at the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown have surged in recent weeks – it now has one of the highest number of active cases of any federal Bureau of Prisons facility in the country.

As of Thursday, there were 129 active coronavirus cases among people incarcerated in the facility and 140 recovered cases. There are also 12 active staff cases and one staff member who has recovered from the coronavirus.

The outbreak, which began in a single housing unit, nearly tripled from 44 active cases two weeks ago to 160 earlier this week.

Only the Big Spring Federal Correctional Institution in Texas has more active cases among incarcerated individuals as of Thursday, with 132.

Some facilities have experienced much larger outbreaks since the pandemic started, like the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution in Texas, which had more than 1,000 positive cases at one point, but those facilities have largely recovered (Seagoville has six active cases as of Thursday). Metropolitan has had a total of 269 confirmed cases among incarcerated individuals since the pandemic started.

The institution is testing a second housing unit, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Emery Nelson wrote in an e-mail.

MCC “has been performing targeted COVID-19 testing based on a number of factors, including a portion of the institution having open-dormitory style housing,” Nelson said.

Nelson said while the Bureau of Prisons has been trying to limit movement of incarcerated people between facilities, MCC has a high volume of “daily inmate movement” because the majority of people held there are being held while they await their trial. That means people come and go as they’re arrested, sometimes bailed out and as they leave to attend court hearings.

“To be clear, while the [Bureau of Prisons] can control and limit its intra-agency movements, we have no authority to refuse inmates brought to us by the U.S. Marshals Service,” said Nelson. The U.S. Marshals Service houses and transports federal detainees up until they are either acquitted or sentenced to prison, meaning they manage individuals who are incarcerated as they await their court proceedings’ completion.

Federal defense attorney Jeremey Warren said although many of his clients in the facility have tested positive, it’s been difficult for him to get information about what’s happening inside.

“It’s been frustrating for the defendants, their families and the defense lawyers,” Warren said. “We don’t want to see our clients get sick or die in prison, totally cut off from their loved ones.”

Testing has been a concern throughout the Bureau of Prisons, including at Metropolitan, Warren said.

“We’re hearing they were not testing inmates unless they were very sick. Once it got bad enough, they began testing whole floors, and the numbers skyrocketed,” he said. “They’re isolating them all, and we’re hearing from clients that the care is minimal. Communication is rough during isolation, so we’re getting piecemeal reports.”

Since March, federal defense attorneys have been raising alarms over the conditions at Metropolitan amid the pandemic, arguing detainees there had severe coughs and fevers, but received delayed or no medical follow-up. Some of the individuals awaiting their trials sleep more than 25 people two a room with minimal space between bunks, according to a letter sent by Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc., whose attorneys manage the bulk of federal pro-bono criminal defense in San Diego, to Sen. Kamala Harris.

Tensions have been mounting locally between federal defense attorneys and prosecutors over practices during the pandemic. Federal defense attorneys have been alleging since July that federal prosecutors have been increasing prosecutions and backing off of the practice of using Notices to Appear in court, rather than arresting and detaining individuals, which have both resulted in an increase in jail populations.

In late July, the Federal Defenders of San Diego, raised concerns to Harris that prosecutors’ practices were increasing the local jail population during the pandemic, and thus, putting people detained in those facilities at greater risk of infection.

U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer has pushed back against those allegations. The increase in prosecutions has been slight and is still overall a significant decrease from pre-COVID times, he said. Since March 16, his office has reduced the number of new cases filed by 85 percent.

The increase in prosecutions, Brewer said in July, was a result of an increase in illicit drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, being seized at the region’s border crossings.

Warren said the exploding number of cases at Metropolitan has felt inevitable to defense attorneys since the pandemic started.

“If you were to design an institution with the goal of spreading this coronavirus, you’d design a prison,” Warren said. “With close quarters, close confinement, it’s impossible to safely maintain social distance. They cannot wear masks when they eat and when they sleep. Fortunately, most people are either asymptomatic or have relatively mild symptoms. Unfortunately, the prisons are providing a good example of how herd immunity works, and it’s not pretty.  And it’s not safe for the inmates, staff or the community, since a lot of people go in and out of jails and prisons each day.”

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