Upgrades to the El Paso County Detention Facility in Downtown, including its heating and cooling system and fire alarm and security systems, are among projects that would be funded through certificate of obligation bonds. (El Paso Matters file photo)

As El Paso has suffered one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country, local jails and immigrant detention facilities have also struggled to control the spread of the virus among prisoners, detainees and staff. 

As of Thursday, El Paso County reported 72 inmates at county jails with confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, plus 17 inmates pending test results. They reported 23 jailers confirmed positive, plus 12 pending results. 

Rogelio Sanchez State Jail reported four active cases among inmates and 34 active cases among employees as of Friday.

Tom Whitten, chief deputy over the county jails, said that all things considered, he believes they are doing well at responding to the community surge in COVID-19 cases. 

“I think we’re in good shape to care for those who might actually get it,” he said.

Current numbers are lower than the outbreak at the jails this past summer, when mass testing was implemented among inmates and jailers. 

New jail inmates are isolated and tested before being introduced to the general jail population,  Whitten said. 

When asked whether it’s likely that COVID-19 is being brought into the jails by staff who are getting exposed in the community, Whitten said that University Medical Center, the medical provider for the jails, is unwilling to make that statement.

“There’s a bazillion ways they get it. It’s invisible. We don’t know everything,” said Whitten, who then continued, “There’s no magic bullet. We encourage our employees to stay safe.”

While Whitten emphasized the focus of the jails on transparency in reporting COVID-19 numbers among staff, the same cannot be said for Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.

Outbreaks at immigrant detention facilities obscured

The number of “employee confirmed cases” on ICE’s website does not include contract workers; however, the vast majority of guards and other workers with close contact to detainees are contract employees. 

ICE reports one employee COVID-19 case at the El Paso Service Processing Center for the entirety of the pandemic so far. As of Wednesday, ICE reports 31 COVID-19 cases among detainees at El Paso Service Processing Center, and 13 cases at Otero County Processing Center. 

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in its care,”ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said in a statement to El Paso Matters in September, responding to rising COVID-19 cases among detainees. Upon requesting information from ICE regarding COVID-19 case numbers among contract workers, ICE directed El Paso Matters to submit questions to the contractor companies themselves. 

Management and Training Corporation, the contractor for Otero, responded to a request from El Paso Matters for information about staff COVID-19 rates. There are currently eight active cases among staff, and there have been 36 cases total throughout the pandemic, a company representative said. 

Bering Straits Native Corporation, the parent company for Global Precision Systems, which is the contractor for El Paso Service Processing Center, did not respond to questions about the current number of employee COVID-19 cases, nor did they indicate the total number of employee cases since the start of the pandemic. 

Detainees and advocates have reported concerns about guards bringing COVID-19 into the facility at El Paso Service Processing Center, and concerns about guards not wearing adequate PPE

Infectious diseases spread differently in incarceration settings 

Martial Loth Ndeffo-Mbah, a professor and researcher at Texas A&M who has modeled the spread of infectious diseases within prisons, said there is a strong probability that guards and other staff are bringing COVID-19 into jails and immigrant detention facilities.

Martial Loth Ndeffo-Mbah

“If you have an outbreak, you are controlling new inmates, putting them in isolation and testing them before bringing them within the general population. So your most likely route of transmission becomes those who have continued interaction with the outside, which would be staff,” Ndeffo-Mbah said. 

He said much of the current strategy for slowing COVID-19 spread within jails and detention centers has been copied from the strategies applied to the general public, rather than considering the specific dynamics of infectious disease spread among incarcerated populations. 

“In a prison setting, you might want to create some form of segregation to a certain extent or “cocooning,” meaning that those who are a high risk might be given specific quarters where they are less in contact for example with the younger population,” he said, explaining that specific staff who work with high risk detainees or inmates could be tested more frequently. 

This strategy would mitigate mortality and hospitalization by focusing resources on the most high risk within the incarcerated population, Ndeffo-Mbah said.

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.