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AP Exclusive: Inside the first major outbreak at an ICE detention center

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The reason the warden at a large San Diego immigration facility gave for not wearing masks amid the pandemic was astonishing – and likely helped fuel a large outbreak.

“Well, you can’t wear the mask because we don’t want to scare the employees and we don’t want to scare the inmates and detainees,” a guard recalled being told.

That guard, along with another who sued a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractor over disregard about COVID-19, gave immigration team leader Elliot Spagat the first detailed interviews about the situation at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center. In addition to prohibiting employees from using face coverings, it was always hard or impossible to find gloves, hand sanitizer and other hygiene products. Repeated requests for clean rags were ignored. What’s more, symptomatic detainees were mixed with others.

Spagat interviewed about a dozen detainees who corroborated much of what guards said and who had their own stories to tell,including being told they had to sign a waiver (in English only) to get a face covering. Spagat was first to report on a Mexican government hotline set up to field complaints that received about 100 calls,many of them about absence of face coverings and lack of cleaning supplies.

Spagat reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents and government data to provide the most complete account yet of the outbreak at Otay Mesa. Photographer Gregory Bull took portraits of a guard and a former detainee and dug up previously unpublished photos from a 2017 tour of the facility, which proved useful after ICE closed it to media due to the coronavirus.

The story was used by 232 online members and garnered 6,000 engagements on Facebook,1,600 on Twitter and more than 10,000 page views on AP News.

For giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the factors that surely contributed to the virus outbreak at an ICE detention center,and for holding the warden and other officials accountable, Spagat wins this week’s Best of the States award.


For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus:

AP’s hub for comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.

Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.

One Good Thing: stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

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