As the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading aggressively across the United States in Spring 2020, it hit jails, prisons, and detention centers with particular virulence. The Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC), which detains both individuals held by the U.S. Marshals’ Service (USMS) facing federal criminal charges and individuals detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was no exception. Available information indicated that OMDC officials were failing to protect detained individuals from COVID-19 by, among other things, failing to conduct widespread testing, housing people in conditions that made social distancing impossible, requiring symptomatic individuals to continue working on site, and inadequately cleaning the facility. These circumstances led to one of the largest detention center COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States in April 2020. This was followed by a second massive outbreak at OMDC in November 2020, which led to the infection of more than 200 people and the death of one individual, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia.
On April 25, 2020, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, along with co-counsel at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, the National ACLU, and Ropes & Gray LLP, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all persons detained in USMS custody at OMDC. The suit alleges that the Plaintiffs’ ongoing detention puts them at a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 resulting in serious illness, harm, or death in violation of the Fifth Amendment right to due process and Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Plaintiffs sought an emergency temporary restraining order directing the release of all medically vulnerable people detained by USMS at the facility. On May 10, 2020, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order, and on June 7, 2020, it also denied Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, which again sought release of medically vulnerable individuals. On February 8, 2021, the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, allowing the case to proceed into discovery.
On July 16, 2021, the parties entered into a joint stay, temporarily pausing the litigation for a period of three months contingent on Defendants providing Plaintiffs with ongoing data on COVID-19 cases, testing, and vaccination rates at OMDC. These data reports will allow Plaintiffs to monitor vaccination efforts and the status of COVID-19 at OMDC and, if necessary, seek to lift the stay and continue with litigation.