The groups said that private prison profiteer CoreCivic, which is contracted by the federal government to detain people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), launched 18 guards in riot gear on the group of nine asylum-seekers, who had been peacefully protesting unsafe conditions and lack of updates on their immigration cases while detained at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico last year.
“Defendants responded to the individual Plaintiffs’ peaceful hunger strike by terrorizing them and attacking them with several canisters and grenades of oleoresin capsicum (‘OC’ ) spray, or pepper spray, a harmful chemical agent that irritates the eyes, skin, and respiratory passages,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants deployed the chemical agent in a poorly ventilated space and confined the individual Plaintiffs by blocking the exits while they screamed and choked.”
“Defendants also failed to properly decontaminate the individual Plaintiffs, resulting in continued harm from the chemical agent for days after the attack,” the lawsuit continued. The groups said in a statement that a number of detained immigrants tested positive for the virus within days. “Two of the plaintiffs, who have a history of mental illness, attempted suicide in the aftermath of the incident,” they said.
“Spraying asylum-seekers held in civil detention with chemical agents when they pose no threat to anyone is unconscionable,” said NMILC managing attorney Jasmine McGee. “These actions, which were clearly retaliatory and intended to inflict harm, cannot go unanswered. We will do everything in our power to seek justice for our clients.”
CoreCivic’s retaliatory tactics against detained immigrants protesting dangerous facility conditions are well-documented. When immigrants detained at CoreCivic’s La Palma Correctional Center (LPCC) in Arizona peacefully protested conditions at their facility, guards there also deployed chemical agents against them, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General said in a recent report. In surveillance photos released by investigators, a dozen officers in riot gear can be seen surrounding a small group of men crouching for cover on the floor.
“The lawsuit, filed on the one-year anniversary of the attack, seeks a declaration that it was unlawful to subject detainees to arbitrary use of force by deploying chemical agents, damages for injury, and an injunction prohibiting the arbitrary use of chemical agents at Torrance County Detention Facility,” the groups said. The national ACLU has also called on the Biden administration to shut down dozens of ICE sites across the U.S., citing patterns of abusive conditions, including completely preventable COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Fiscal Year 2020 was the deadliest year in ICE detention in 15 years,” the ACLU said. “Last year alone, we saw reports of increased use of force, solitary confinement, patterns of sexual abuse, forced sterilization, and an utter failure to protect people from COVID-19. ICE’s extreme recklessness in handling the COVID-19 virus showed the blatant disregard it had for the health and well-being of detained people, as well as the extent to which it was willing to lie or obfuscate to avoid accountability.”
“Every day, we advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our state, including asylum seekers like those pepper sprayed at Torrance County Detention Facility last year,” Santa Fe Dreamers Project Executive Director Analía Rodríguez said. “We’ve joined this lawsuit as an organizational plaintiff to stop CoreCivic from further harming those in our community who need our protection the most.”