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65 COVID-19 cases tied to private detention complex in southern New Mexico

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This story has been updated with comment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Sixty-five detainees and employees been infected by COVID-19 at a private incarceration facility near Chaparral, health officials say, one of the worst outbreaks in the El Paso-southern New Mexico region.

The infected include 38 detainees and six employees at the Otero County Processing Center operated for Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and 21 inmates at an adjacent Otero County Prison Facility which holds people for the U.S. Marshals Service and New Mexico Corrections Department. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

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 at a news conference on Wednesday.

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 as of April 22, detention facilities in the El Paso area reduced their population 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 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 reports.

In addition to the 21 Marshals Service inmates who tested positive, another 10 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 on Tuesday, 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.

The Otero County Processing Center, left, and Otero County Prison Facility are adjacent to each other off U.S. 54 near Chaparral, N.M., just north of El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth.)

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.

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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