by Daniel A. Rosen |
Migrants in ICE custody in New Mexico were attacked with pepper spray in May to end a days-long hunger strike. The detainees, housed at a private facility run by CoreCivic in Torrance County, were protesting the food quality and lack of protection from COVID-19.
“Suddenly they just started gassing us. You could hear everyone screaming for help,” said Yandy Bacallao, a 34-year-old Cuban asylum claimant.
A CoreCivic spokesman confirmed that the incident took place. Ryan Gustin said on the company’s behalf that officers pepper sprayed “a group of detainees who became disruptive by refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff.” Gustin referred further questions to ICE, which had no response to requests for comment.
Torrance County Manager Wayne Johnson was skeptical of inmate accounts, saying he had no confirmation that the incident had even happened, but suspects “there’s more to it that what you’ve been told.” The County recorded $90,000 in income from CoreCivic last fiscal year, when the site started housing migrants, and expects annual revenue from the arrangement to climb to about $130,000 per year.
Bacallao and two other detainees provided additional details. After almost three dozen cases of the coronavirus were identified at the facility, the men began asking for community release while awaiting resolution of their cases, and about policies to control the virus. The hunger strike over food conditions was already underway when COVID-19 cases started to rise, and detainees’ fears of the virus spread increased their determination to press their case.
Instead of answering the migrants’ inquiries, Bacallao says a prison official came into their dorm on May 14th to warn them that “it was going to get ugly,” unless the men ended their strike.
The migrants were told they could exit the dorm and a couple did, before guards entered in gas masks and full riot gear, corralling the remaining men.
“It felt like I had been burned with gasoline,” said another Cuban asylum seeker. “I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die.”
Bacallao said following the attack, the men were cuffed and placed in holding cells, after nurses did a cursory check. Some were carried out on stretchers or in wheelchairs, one with a head wound, according to witnesses. Trying to wash out their eyes with water from the sink made the effects of the irritants worse, they said.
According to Gustin, the CoreCivic spokesman, medical staff reviewed everyone after the protest and “no injuries occurred.”
According to medical experts, chemical irritants like pepper spray are exceedingly problematic when respiratory diseases like COVID are involved. Pepper spray worsens symptoms for those already infected, and induces coughing, increasing the spread of the disease.
ICE policy allows for the use of pepper spray to “gain control” of detainees, as long as facilities keep records of any such uses of force. ICE declined to share any records from the May 14 incident.