Things That Matter

A Group Of Women At A Migrant Detention Center Demanded Information About Covid-19, Then They Were Pepper Sprayed

As the Coronavirus spreads throughout communities across the United States, one group of people are at particular risk for contracting the virus: migrant detainees.

Tens of thousands of migrants are packed into crowded detention centers with little access to proper sanitation or medical treatment. Even before the outbreak of Covid19, migrants were facing outbreaks of measles and influenza at greater numbers than the general public.

Now, as they demand information on the risk this new virus poses them, they’re being met with violence.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, so have confrontations between detainees and guards.

Credit: DHS / Office Of Inspector General

On Monday, migrants clashed with guards over a lack of safe conditions and demanded to be released from the South Texas Processing Center. The melee led to a standoff and the guards shot pepper spray at the detainees, which ended with nine of the migrants now held for disciplinary charges. The detainees had raised concerns about the lack of screening measures for new arrivals to the complex.

Then, a day later in Louisiana, an ICE spokesman said seven people were pepper-sprayed at the Pine Prairie detention center. Earlier, an ICE detainee in New Jersey described harrowing conditions and said migrants went on a hunger strike for soap. ProPublica obtained an audio recording in which the detainee said that guards, in response to the strike for hygiene products in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, told the detainees that they “have to die of something.”

The threat faced by detainees in ICE custody is real.

Credit: Grisel Gringis / YouTube

Four people — two correctional officers and two detainees — tested positive for COVID-19 at New Jersey detention facilities.

According to ICE’s guidance, new detainees who arrive at facilities are screened and isolated for a certain period of time if they have a fever or respiratory symptoms. The staff is also consulting with local health departments to determine whether there’s a need for testing.

For ICE’s part, they’re defending the use of chemicals against detainees as a necessary tool.

ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told Mother Jones that pepper spray was used because “four persons became confrontational.” The rest of his statement said:

“The facility was conducting an informational briefing on COVID-19 preparations and safety measures in a detainee housing area to ensure persons in custody have accurate, timely information about the situation,”

As far as the use of force against migrants, he goes on to say: “ICE is tasked with providing safe and secure detention facilities for individuals in its custody. On March 25, at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, a group of ICE detainees became disruptive and confrontational with facility staff in their housing area. Detainees refused to comply with directives from facility staff and four attempted to force their way out of the housing area, at which time facility staff deployed oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as ‘OC’ spray. Upon deployment of OC, the detainees became compliant and facility staff was able to mitigate further risk of injury to both detainees and staff. This immediate use of force was conducted consistent with agency protocol. Medical staff evaluated all individuals who came in contact with the pepper spray; no detainee or staff injuries were reported.”

Even before the outbreak, ICE was using pepper spray against migrants in its facilities.

Last summer, over 100 immigrants were pepper-sprayed at a Louisiana Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. The incident happened after a group of detainees began to protest the conditions they were being forced to endure.

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said that a “group of ICE detainees refused to depart the outdoor recreation area at the Pine Prairie facility Friday evening,” adding that “after repeated attempts by facility staff and ICE personnel to disperse the group and restore orderly operation of the facility, a brief, calculated use of pepper spray was employed Saturday morning.”

And this incident came just a day after 30 migrants were sprayed at a separate Louisiana facility. It’s obvious ICE is eager to use pepper spray against detainees in their care.

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