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The outbreak comes as tensions have been mounting locally between federal defense attorneys and prosecutors over practices during the pandemic.
Forty-four incarcerated individuals and three staff members at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal Bureau of Prisons facility in downtown San Diego, have active coronavirus cases.
The outbreak happened after a group of people in a single housing unit were infected with the virus, according to the Bureau of Prisons. So far, three incarcerated people and one staff member at the facility have recovered from the virus. There have been no deaths so far.
Every person in the housing unit has now been tested, said Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long in an e-mail.
“We are deeply concerned for the health and welfare of those inmates who are entrusted to our care, and for our staff, their families and the communities we live and work in,” Long said in an e-mail. “It is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”
As of Thursday, 1,407 federal inmates and 616 Bureau of Prisons staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide. There have been 115 federal inmate deaths and one Bureau of Prisons staff member death attributed to the coronavirus.
When incarcerated individuals test positive or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, they are placed in isolation until they have recovered. A contact investigation is then conducted to identify any potential exposures, Long said.
The outbreak comes as 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, which handles the bulk of federal pro-bono defense, raised concerns to Sen. Kamala 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.
In March, the same group sounded the alarm to Harris that federal prosecutors are still pushing to detain people awaiting trial amid the pandemic, even those accused of nonviolent crimes.
At the time, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said the assertions in the letter were “grossly misleading.”
“Unfortunately, since then, the risks to our clients — as well as our staff and Southern California communities — have increased, rather than abated,” Kathryn Nester, executive director of the Federal Defenders, wrote in the July letter. “The increased danger stems from escalating prosecutions and the reopening of in-person court proceedings in our district, despite escalating COVID-19 infections in local jails and communities. These prosecutions are occurring on an uneven playing field, as the pandemic is undermining our clients’ constitutional rights to a speedy trial and to confidential communication with their lawyers.”
Brewer disputed the latest letter too, and said in his response that it “omits many key facts and presents Senator Harris with an inaccurate, biased and incomplete picture of what is occurring in the Southern District of California.”
The increase in prosecutions has been slight and is still overall a significant decrease from pre-COVID times, Brewer said. Since March 16, his office has reduced the number of new cases filed by 85 percent.
The recent increase in prosecutions, Brewer said, is a result of an increase in illicit drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, being seized at the region’s border crossings. Since June, more than 75 percent of prosecutions involved drug importation offenses.
“The [U.S. attorney’s office] is increasing prosecutions while simultaneously winding down its practice—instituted at the beginning of the pandemic—of issuing Notices to Appear instead of arresting and detaining many defendants,” Nester wrote in the letter to Harris. “The result is a growing jail population, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
Brewer said that his office has been forced to take more people into custody after many people failed to appear in court. Approximately 26 percent of defendants provided with notices to appear in San Diego County have failed to appear for their initial court date, Brewer wrote, and approximately 43 percent of defendants provided with Notices to Appear in Imperial County have failed to appear for their initial court date.
Nester noted in her letter to Harris that the risk of contracting COVID-19 in local jails and detention facilities had also markedly increased since March, with confirmed cases at eight detention facilities. That includes two large outbreaks at the Otay Mesa Detention Center and the El Centro Detention Facility, run by the GEO Group.
That letter was sent nearly a month prior to the outbreak at the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
The Federal Defenders and U.S. attorney’s office both declined to comment.