The Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

More than 400 of the 554 people incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19, including a pregnant woman. One man has died from the virus, which he contracted in the federal Bureau of Prisons facility in downtown San Diego.

Those numbers include 48 inmates and 12 staff members who currently have the coronavirus; 352 inmates and seven staff members have recovered.

Those incarcerated say that quarantining often doesn’t happen according to procedures, which has exacerbated the dramatic spread of the virus within the facility. Interviews with inmates, their family members and attorneys and court documents reveal how key decisions – including sending a patient to the hospital for a procedure, where he was exposed to COVID, and exposing him to other inmates upon his return, as well as accepting new intakes beginning in September – allowed for the virus to take hold and spread throughout the facility.

Family members say their loved ones have struggled to get needed medical treatment even after testing positive. Attorneys and family members say they haven’t been contacted when their clients and relatives test positive for the virus while in custody.

Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long said MCC has mass tested inmates in recent months, resulting in a high number of positive of cases being reported. Long said for security reasons, the Bureau of Prisons cannot disclose how many people are currently hospitalized with COVID, but that no one is in critical condition or on life support. The pregnant woman who contracted COVID while incarcerated at MCC has since recovered.

“All inmates in the Bureau of Prisons who are positive for COVID-19 or symptomatic are medically isolated and provided medical care in accordance with CDC guidance,” said Long.

Defense attorneys have been warning since March that conditions in MCC were ripe for the virus to spread. The sudden uptick in cases, which began in August, happened as defense attorneys raised the alarm that prosecutors were beginning to increase the number of people detained as they awaited their court hearings.

“We feel like we’re constantly in crisis mode and there is constantly a fire to put out,” said Cassandra Lopez, a supervising attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, which handles the bulk of pro-bono defense for federal cases.

‘They’re Moving Bodies From Place to Place’

Eric Selio, who is incarcerated at MCC, has long dealt with heart issues.

In mid-August, Selio needed to have a heart monitoring device put on. According to Selio and court documents filed by his attorney requesting his compassionate release from the facility, a local hospital where he was taken for the procedure had indicated that it could talk MCC staff members through the procedure over the phone so that Selio could avoid coming to the hospital and risking exposure to the virus.

Selio was sent to the hospital anyway, and when he returned, he wasn’t quarantined, according to court documents.

“They said it wasn’t procedure, because I was only gone for two hours,” Selio said. “How is that responsible? COVID don’t take a break.”

Soon after, Selio said his cellmates began exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. The virus spread through his housing unit.

“They got it from me,” Selio said.

Selio tested positive for coronavirus on Aug. 18, “and had infected several other inmates due to MCC’s mishandling of their own protocols,” according to court documents.

When Selio recovered, he said he was brought to another floor, where a group of people who were positive were staying. Selio said he was told that since he already had the virus, he wouldn’t get sick again. But he did.

Selio’s attorney, Sandra Lechman, was notified on Sept. 11 that he had tested positive again and contracted COVID-19 a second time, according to court documents.

“They’re moving bodies from place to place,” Selio said. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

When incarcerated individuals leave the facility for medical appointments, Long said, medical staff in the facility determine “on individual circumstances as to whether or not an inmate requires quarantine after leaving the facility for a medical appointment.”

Lechman said that if reckless quarantine practices – like not isolating and testing all those who leave the facility for medical appointments – led to Selio spreading the virus in his housing area, then those practices probably happened more than once.

“If you got caught this time, you’ve probably gotten caught before,” Lechman said. “It may be Mr. Selio this time, but if an outbreak this big happens, it’s not because one time they broke protocol in a small way. It’s that many times they broke protocol.”

Indeed, family members say they’re concerned proper quarantining and other safety procedures aren’t being followed.

Monica Estrada’s brother is in MCC and has contracted COVID-19.

Estrada said her brother told her that a lot of his bunkies – he’s in a part of MCC with dormitory-style arrangements – started getting sick. He told her the COVID-positive inmates were never moved, she said.

“There’s only two showers and one bathroom they are all sharing,” Estrada said. “I feel like that is why it is spreading so quickly.”

Rafaela Hernandez’s husband has been in MCC for a little over two months – and he’s been sick for around a month. Twenty-five people in his housing unit tested positive for the virus, she said.

Her husband has expressed concern that even the phones everyone shares aren’t being adequately cleaned, she said.

“They definitely should be taking other precautions and measures to keep everyone safe there,” she said.

Long said the Bureau of Prisons’ COVID-19 quarantine policy requires staff to separate inmates who test positive or are symptomatic in a room or unit apart from other incarcerated individuals. If an inmate tests negative and is asymptomatic, they remain in quarantine for at least 14 days and must test negative again prior to being placed in the general population.

‘It Shouldn’t Have Happened’

Victor Cruz, who was incarcerated at MCC, died from coronavirus last week, after contracting it in the facility.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” said Angie Velasquez, Cruz’s mother. “I don’t know what else to say.”

On Aug. 31, Velasquez found out that her son was being hospitalized. About a week earlier, he had called her and told her that he wasn’t feeling well. His body was sore. He was having constant headaches and chills.

“All he kept saying was, ‘Mom, I’m scared,’” Velasquez said.

In September, Velasquez was notified that her son was in critical condition. He was transferred to a different hospital, had a blood transfusion and was put on a ventilator. After a couple of weeks, he was placed on life support.

Velasquez and two of Cruz’s siblings saw him one last time the day he died, before he was taken off life support.

“I broke down, my daughter broke down, his son broke down,” Velasquez said. “Seeing him laying down like nothing was left. We had to disconnect him because he was not going to make it anymore.”

Velasquez remembers her son as a happy, lovable, caring man. He long struggled with addiction and then depression after his daughter was killed in a car accident – a struggle that eventually landed him in MCC.

“He would take his shirt away from his body to give to somebody else,” Velasquez said. “I’m just hoping they’re not going to do the same thing that happened with my son: let him die,” Velasquez said.

Lechman, who was also Cruz’s attorney, said he had been in MCC for more than a year, which is fairly rare since many people in the facility are there for relatively short periods as they await court hearings. Cruz’s case had been delayed as a result of evidentiary issues and COVID-19.

“Not very many people stay at MCC for that long,” Lechman said. “Guards and staff knew him. He worked in the kitchen. Everyone knew him and liked him. Everybody knew Mr. Cruz.”

Lechman said Cruz had been trying to turn his life around – and had been successful – up until his daughter’s accident. The loss triggered his addiction, and he turned to selling drugs to feed that addiction. He was charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.

“It’s such a tragedy as it was,” Lechman said. “This man, who even later in his life was trying to do something different and had a painful moment. And then this happens. He has been robbed of what could’ve been a new point in his life.”

Attorneys Question Treatment, Communication, New Intakes

Karina Pina Cortez’s father, who is in MCC, tested positive for COVID-19 roughly two weeks ago. He’s lost his sense of taste and smell, and had a cold and fever.

Everyone on his floor is currently sick.

“I asked him if he got medical attention,” Pina Cortez said. “They haven’t provided him medicine or anything like that. I told him to try to buy teas, but it’s been three weeks where there is no commissary.”

The commissary, where people can buy additional food and other things, has been closed due to the pandemic.

“It just keeps spreading more and more inside,” she said. “I hope this ends soon.”

Estrada and Hernandez said their loved ones have also had trouble accessing medication.

Estrada’s brother has been experiencing muscle and joint pain, but hasn’t been able to obtain even Tylenol from the commissary or from medical staff. Hernandez said her husband initially wasn’t allowed to take Tylenol either, but eventually was allowed to once his condition became so bad he was put on a plan to help his breathing.

“While a prison setting is unique when addressing a pandemic, the care and treatment of an identified positive COVID-19 case is not,” said Long. “The [Bureau of Prisons] follows CDC guidance the same as community doctors and hospitals with regard to quarantine and medical isolation procedures, along with providing appropriate treatment.”

Selio, however, compared his quarantine experience to that of a dog in a kennel.

“When I tested positive, my head was hurting, felt like knives going through my body,” he said. “They knew this. They made me get out the bed, crawl to the door to get my temperature taken. I never got any cough medicine or nothing. By me having a heart condition, anything could’ve happened, but they never really checked on me.”

Long said the Bureau of Prisons assesses inmates in quarantine daily and provides individual treatment plans based on the needs of each patient. Incarcerated individuals can be prescribed pain medications like Tylenol, Motrin and Naprosyn, as well as antibiotics and oral steroids depending on their situation, he said.

Lopez, the Federal Defenders attorney, said the facility hasn’t been telling attorneys in her office when their clients test positive.

“MCC has been less than transparent with us,” Lopez said.

Lechman said she too initially heard about her clients’ sicknesses secondhand – through family members or other attorneys with clients in the same housing units.

Long said that MCC does notify families when their family member tests positive for COVID-19. Inmates also have access to free unmonitored calls to their attorney, and the Bureau of Prisons has “increased monthly telephone minutes for all inmates from 300 to 500 minutes in recognition of how important it is for families to stay in touch during this time,” he said.

MCC has begun receiving new intakes, meaning people are being transferred in and out of the facility.

Long said all inmates who are being released from or transferred to other Bureau of Prisons facilities, or other agencies are placed in a 14-day quarantine and must test negative before the transfer takes place.

“We’re extremely concerned that there has been this outbreak at the MCC that has exploded and now they are re-opening the facility for new intakes when they still have a significant number of new cases at the facility,” Lopez said. “It seems like they shouldn’t be moving towards re-opening just yet.”

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.