California’s Otay Mesa Detention Facility, a privately operated immigration prison where the first detained immigrant to die from COVID-19 had been held, has failed yet another unannounced inspection. This is the second time since November 2020 that the facility, operated by private prison profiteer CoreCivic, has failed a virtual inspection conducted by investigators. Not even a physical inspection, folks, but a remote inspection.
While last year’s investigators were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), it was investigators from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) who this time carried out the surprise inspections, which took place between February 2021 and April 2021. Despite being dinged just months before, Otay Mesa again failed, continuing to make the case for why this prison needs to be shut down once and for all.
The report said that in the early weeks of the novel coronavirus pandemic last year, “Otay Mesa provided detainees with masks, but initially required detainees to sign paperwork relieving the facility of any liability stemming from wearing masks and allegedly threatened detainees who refused to sign the release with pepper spray.” This confirms an April 2020 San Diego Union Tribune report that we noted at the time. Separate investigations have also found that officials at other detention sites pepper-sprayed immigrants who protested harmful conditions amid the pandemic.
“One female detainee alleged an Otay Mesa staff member pepper-sprayed a crowd of female detainees who were objecting to the form,” the OIG report continued. “Otay Mesa denied threatening detainees with pepper spray and recorded no uses of force or uses of pepper spray during this initial distribution of masks. We requested video of this incident, but the facility stated that it did not keep video from the previous year.” How convenient. The report said that the policy lasted just one day.
“Overall, we found that Otay Mesa did not meet standards for grievances, segregation, or staff-detainee communications,” the report continued. “Specifically, Otay Mesa did not respond timely to detainee grievances and did not forward staff misconduct grievances to ICE as required. In addition, 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.”
ODO’s surprise inspection last year found immigrants requiring mental health care not getting proper follow-up regarding their medications, or even basic information about what they were taking, the Los Angeles Times said. Another issue was phone lines repeatedly cutting out during calls. This was alarming because this is the same camp where officials intentionally blocked immigrants from making phone calls to advocates until public pressure forced them to backtrack.
This facility not only continues to be a human rights disaster, it’s been an expensive one laid at the feet of taxpayers, too. “Finally, we 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,” the OIG continued. For a while, court ordered releases amid the pandemic led to lower detention levels, and as inspectors note, private prison profiteers get paid whether there’s somebody in the bed or not. “At the median rate of $75 per bed, the estimated daily cost to taxpayers for these empty beds is $1.34 million per day” nationally, NPR reported in April.
But lower detention numbers have been short-lived. “Number of immigrants detained by ICE has increased 70 percent under Biden,” Detention Watch Network Executive Director Silky Shah recently wrote. Law passed by California in 2019 that banned private, for-profit prisons, including facilities that detain immigrants, was halted by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel this week. Two of the judges were appointed by the previous administration, the Associated Press reported. The third and lone dissenting judge was appointed by the Obama administration.
“Today’s ruling is a stark lesson about the threat unchecked corporate power poses to the democratic process,” the Dignity Not Detention Coalition said. “Yet AB 32 is one tactic in a large quest for justice. People who are currently in detention and their loved ones continue to organize for freedom and dignity every day. We must answer the call of solidarity and redouble our efforts to end all detention, whether run by a corporation or the government.” Shut ‘em down.