More than 70 immigrants were pepper-sprayed at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center on Wednesday, according to a government document obtained by BuzzFeed News — the fourth known use-of-force incident this week at ICE facilities as fear and anxiety spreads among detainees over COVID-19.
Since Monday, guards at three ICE detention facilities in Louisiana and Texas — LaSalle ICE Processing Center, Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, and South Texas ICE Processing Center — have used force to quell inmate protests.
Advocates and attorneys have reported that ICE detainees have had limited access to soap and are worried that the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, could spread undetected, leaving those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly at risk. ICE officials have said they are constantly monitoring detainees and staying in close touch with medical experts on the potential spread of the disease in detention facilities. ICE has so far confirmed that one of the 38,000 detainees in its custody has tested positive for the coronavirus in New Jersey.
“They are freaking out about it,” said Alexandra Seo, whose mother is at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana. “She is saying ‘help her’ she is begging for help.”
On Wednesday, ICE medical officials, along with members from the private prison company running the facility, GeoGroup, held a meeting about COVID-19 at LaSalle, according to the government document obtained by BuzzFeed News. It was then that a group of detainees began protesting and ignored the guards’ orders. Soon after, four detainees rushed an exit door. The guards decided to use pepper spray to keep the other 75 detainees in the area, according to the document.
ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox confirmed the incident, saying detainees “refused to comply with directives from facility staff and four attempted to force their way out of the housing area.”
On Monday, officials used “pepper balls” on 23 detainees at the LaSalle facility following a protest, according to a separate document. At Pine Prairie, ICE said a group of detainees were pepper-sprayed on Tuesday after becoming “physically combative” in the recreation area. At the South Texas ICE Processing Center, 60 detainees started a demonstration as they demanded to be released from the jail and refused to comply with orders, according to ICE.
“The detainees told facility staff they would continue their protest until they were released from custody; however, those actions compromised security protocols at the facility,” said Adelina Pruneda, an agency spokesperson. “After detainees refused to comply with numerous commands given by contract staff, the contract staff initiated an immediate ‘use of force’ by disbursing oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as OC Spray.”
Advocates believe the incidents are tied to heightened fears surrounding the spread of COVID-19. In recent days, attorneys from the ACLU and other organizations have filed legal requests to force ICE to release certain detainees from custody. Researchers have found that more than half of those in immigration detention do not have a criminal conviction, while more than 6,000 have passed initial asylum screenings.
“Our on the ground team has been inundated with messages from detained people because they’re scared for their lives. They don’t even have soap in detention centers and ICE refuses to release them,” said Laura Rivera, director of the Southern Poverty Law Centers’ Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative Detained. “People are now telling us ICE is retaliating to their peaceful protests with violence including the use of pepper spray and rubber bullets. ICE immediately escalated the situation at LaSalle, deploying guards in riot gear to pepper spray the people demanding their release. We can’t look away now, out of worry for our own health. The lives of those caged inside these detention centers are literally on the line. Conditions on the inside are far more perilous than those on the outside.”
ICE has come under fire in recent months for issues related to medical care provided within its detention centers. In December, the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the medical care of detainees in the wake of a BuzzFeed News story that revealed a series of allegations of substandard care from a whistleblower. BuzzFeed News first reported the memo and documented its reports of detainees being given incorrect medication and suffering from delays in treatment of withdrawal symptoms.
In March, BuzzFeed News reported on a 2019 DHS memo outlining issues with a detention center in New Mexico. The internal email detailed how immigrants were exposed to poor sanitation and quarantine practices during an outbreak of chicken pox and mumps. Investigators also said they saw immigrants housed in an area that was not “appropriately cleaned and sanitized,” potentially contributing to the spread of infectious diseases.