As virus spreads among federal inmates in downtown L.A., court hearings and visitations are halted

A coronavirus outbreak has infected more than 200 inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.
A coronavirus outbreak has infected more than a third of the inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A.
(David McNew / Getty Images)

A coronavirus outbreak at a federal detention center in downtown Los Angeles has left more than 200 inmates infected and forced prison officials to cancel detainees’ court appearances as part of a lockdown of the facility.

The number of inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center who have tested positive for the virus increased to 209 Monday, despite a decision last week by the prison’s warden to impose strict limits on inmates’ movements and conduct more extensive testing.

In addition to the inmates, two members of the prison staff have also contracted the virus, according to the Bureau of Prisons data.


In a letter last week, Warden W.Z. Jenkins II alerted U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez and U.S. Magistrate Paul Abrams to the swift spread of the virus, which has infected more than a third of the 550 inmates, most of whom are housed at the facility while their court proceedings are underway.

The warden wrote that he was temporarily suspending all inmate movements, which meant video and in-person court hearings, meetings with attorneys and social visits have been halted for inmates whether or not they have come down with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

As of Tuesday, 443 of the prison’s 1,055 inmates have the coronavirus, along with 10 staff members. Two inmates have died from COVID-19.

April 29, 2020

“Although cognizant of the issues that these suspensions may present, we are implementing these procedures to avoid even the potential of exposure and spread of the virus to other inmates, staff and visitors,” Jenkins wrote. “Any lesser measures creates the opportunity of the virus to spread even further within the institution and we simply cannot take that risk.”

The outbreak is the latest to hit federal and state prisons in the California. As federal prisons in Lompoc and Terminal island in Los Angeles’ harbor have seen hundreds of inmates infected and 14 killed inmates, MDC had remained relatively unscathed until this month.

Now, it has the fourth-highest number of infections among the country’s network of federal prison. So far only 17 inmates and nine staff at the detention center are listed as having recovered from the virus, meaning the rest are active cases, according to the Bureau of Prisons data.

The warden said an inmate who was released on Nov. 3 tested positive. The inmates in the unit where that inmate was housed were quarantined and tested with nasal swabs.


“I must report that 99 of the inmates on that housing unit have so far had their tests return positive,” Jenkins wrote. The infected inmates were immediately placed in isolation, while the remainder were quarantined, he said.

“As a precaution, 20% of every other housing unit will also be tested for COVID-19,” Jenkins added. The warden sent the letter because he explained he cannot release the list of isolated or quarantined inmates but the courts can make individual inquiries.

Nationwide, 3,891 federal inmates and 1,264 Bureau of Prisons staff are currently confirmed. Another 18,821 inmates and 1,773 have recovered, according to federal data. Some 143 inmates and two bureau employees have died due to COVID-19 complications.