A prisoner at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, has tested positive for COVID-19 — the first case confirmed at the facility since the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic began — and a tuberculosis outbreak was also reported Monday, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.
Attorney Alex Omar Rosa-Ambert filed a motion to delay trial Tuesday on behalf of defendant Tommy Ramirez, who is being held in pretrial detention at MDC Guaynabo on federal cocaine trafficking charges.
Ramirez’s attorneys have been unable to meet with him because Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vazquez-Garced issued a state of emergency on March 12 that prohibited all visitation at the federal detention center in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The order extends until at least Aug. 3, but recent developments may prolong that prohibition.
Puerto Rico’s Criminal Justice Act Panel liaison has announced “that a COVID-19 case was identified at MDC, after an arrest of several individuals in open seas,” according to the motion.
“Furthermore, on Monday, MDC reported that a tuberculosis outbreak came about at the institution as well. As a result, we have been unable to meet with the defendant to engage in meaningful trial preparation since March 15.”
Attorneys’ contact with their clients is currently limited to 30-minute calls.
Should attorneys be able to enter the facility, they are further hampered by measures taken by the governor to limit the spread of COVID-19 by people traveling to Puerto Rico.
“The governor activated the National Guard to assist in the frontiers to contain the epidemic. Specifically, the National Guard will establish screening centers to examine all passengers attempting to enter Puerto Rico from any United States territory,” and has “sole discretion to prohibit reentry to Puerto Rico to any individual who does not pass their screening analysis,” the motion stated.
Since Rosa-Ambert lives in Puerto Rico, the motion notes the attorney’s concern that he might not be able to get home after a trial if he were to subsequently fail the Guard’s COVID-19 screening.
Rosa-Ambert has requested the trial be rescheduled until after the federal detention center reopens to legal visits in October.
The extension of the detention center’s lockdown means that Ramirez and other defendants awaiting trial and sentencing in Puerto Rico may have to wait for months to go before a judge.
Numerous Virgin Islanders, including former Casino Control Commission Chairwoman Violet Anne Golden and Olympic boxer John Jackson, are housed at the facility. Their attorneys filed requests for release because of the threat that COVID-19 could spread quickly in confined detention centers, which were denied after prosecutors argued that there wasn’t a risk because no cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed at the facility.
It’s unclear how many Virgin Islanders are currently housed in federal jails and prisons around the country, and federal inmates and detainees were moved out of all Virgin Islands correctional facilities at the outset of the pandemic, according to V.I. Bureau of Corrections spokesman Winthrop Maduro.
Maduro did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily News.