During an unannounced inspection of Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) identified violations of ICE detention standards that compromised the health, safety, and rights of detainees.
An upward trend continues in the detainee population at Otay Mesa and, as of August 13, 2021, the center is housing more than 700 detainees.
OIG found that Otay Mesa complied with standards for classification and provided sufficient medical care to detainees. However, in addressing COVID-19, the watchdog found Otay Mesa did not consistently enforce use of facial coverings and social distancing. According to OIG, while facility staff initially required detainees to sign documents releasing the facility from liability for all claims related to mask wearing to obtain masks, Otay Mesa reversed this decision the same day and provided detainees masks without the waiver. In February 2021, Otay Mesa began providing COVID-19 vaccinations to detainees through partnerships with local governments.
On May 6, 2020, a 57-year-old Salvadoran man who was held at Otay Mesa died after contracting COVID-19. It was the first confirmed death from the disease of a detainee in an ICE detention center. He had been in custody since January 10 and between then and his death, several employees and detainees tested positive for COVID-19.
Overall, OIG found that Otay Mesa did not meet standards for grievances, segregation, or staff-detainee communications. Specifically, OIG said Otay Mesa did not respond timely to detainee grievances and did not forward staff misconduct grievances to ICE as required. In addition, the watchdog found that Otay Mesa was not consistently providing required services for detainees in segregation, including access to recreation, legal calls, laundry, linen exchange, mail, legal materials, commissary, and law library.
Further, the investigation found that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not consistently respond to detainee requests timely and did not specify times for visits with detainees. Finally, OIG determined the declining detainee population at Otay Mesa caused ICE to pay more than $22 million for unused bed space under a guaranteed minimum contract.
OIG made seven recommendations to ICE:
- Ensure Otay Mesa meets ICE’s COVID-19 requirements for wearing masks and social distancing.
- Establish a grievance tracking system to ensure timely responses to all grievances filed at Otay Mesa.
- Ensure Otay Mesa forwards all staff misconduct complaints to ICE ERO, as required.
- Provide detainees in segregation access to laundry, legal materials, mail, required recreation time outside their cell, and the commissary (for those in administrative segregation).
- Provide detainees full access to a secure drop-box for ICE requests and verify that ICE responds timely to such requests.
- Ensure detainees have consistent and appropriate access to ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations deportation officers including identifying time, duration, and location of ICE facility visits.
- Update ICE’s contract with Otay Mesa to better identify housing requirements and determine if guaranteed minimums are necessary.
ICE concurred with six of the seven recommendations and noted work to meet these, some of which has already been completed. The rest of the corrective actions are estimated to be completed by November 30, 2021. ICE did not agree with the final recommendation, noting that “during the pandemic, the process of maintaining physical separation and social distancing required the use of additional facility space not normally utilized to properly quarantine and cohort detainees”.