Complaint alleges retaliation at immigration detention centers after protests over conditions

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Man held at Otay Mesa Detention Center said facility workers harassed him in retaliation for his leadership in protests against conditions during a year-round COVID-19 outbreak there last.

The claim is part of a complaint filed last week by California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, Centro Legal de la Raza and the American Civil Liberties Union, which says detainees in California immigration detention centers have faced retaliation from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its contractors after staging hunger strikes and other protests against unsanitary conditions. In addition to the story of the man at Otay Mesa, he details what happened to immigration inmates who tried to peacefully protest their conditions at Yuba County Jail, Mesa Verde Detention Center , Adelanto Detention Center and Golden State Annex.

Monika Langarica, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the retaliation was a direct violation of detainees’ First Amendment rights.

“Taken together, these cases and the patterns we identify in these detention centers really paint a picture of the conditions of ICE detention in all areas, so appalling and inhumane that they drive people to desperation – to strikes. hunger, prayer watches and other types. peaceful protests – to draw attention to their suffering, ”Langarica said. “Instead of taking meaningful action to address these concerns, which are linked to legitimate health and safety concerns amid the pandemic, ICE and its private contractors have instead retaliated against these people for making them. to hush up. “

The complaint calls on the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to investigate the allegations and make recommendations to the ICE to stop future retaliation, including calling on the agency to terminate its contracts with private prison companies in the named establishments.

When asked about the complaint, ICE said it was not commenting on the pending litigation. CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns and operates the Otay Mesa detention center, said the ACLU’s work on the complaint was unreliable as the organization wants to end private prisons.

“We deny the specious and sensationalistic allegations contained in this complaint about CoreCivic and our Otay Mesa detention center,” spokesman Ryan Gustin said. “These allegations are designed to exert political pressure rather than serve as an objective description of the affirmative and proactive steps OMDC has taken for over a year to combat this unprecedented pandemic.

“We have worked closely with our government partners and state health officials to respond to this unprecedented situation in a manner that is appropriate, thorough, and mindful of the well-being of those entrusted to us and of our communities.” , added Gustin. “We believe this is why conditions at OMDC have stabilized, but we remain vigilant. “

Anthony Alexandre, the man held at the Otay Mesa detention center, said he was sprayed with pepper spray by guards, threatened with deportation and deprived of his medical accommodation. He spoke to the San Diego Union-Tribune about numerous incidents that occurred during 2020 as part of the newspaper’s coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility which for weeks, was the largest of all outbreaks at a nationwide immigrant detention center.

As a person who suffered from asthma as a child and suffered from high blood pressure as an adult, he feared that his continued detention would lead to his death as the virus spread in the detention center. Otay Mesa.

It was Alexander’s willingness to speak with reporters and conduct hunger strikes on other detainees that led to the retaliation, according to the complaint.

Alexandre, a Haitian green card holder who has been in the United States since 1990, told Union-Tribune last year he ended up in Otay Mesa detention center after serving more than 4 years in state prison for a conviction for domestic violence. He is being held in police custody while he fights in court to keep his green card.

According to the complaint, when he and other inmates in his housing unit, known in the facility as pods, went on hunger strike in mid-April, Kelley Beckhelm, the deputy officer in charge from the San Diego ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations field office, came to their pod and said, “Are you really going to do this?” If you don’t eat, we’ll get you kicked out.

Among the hunger strikers was Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, who became the first nationwide immigration detainee to die of COVID-19.

About a week later, guards told the housing unit that they would be joined with another group that had previously had inmates testing positive for the coronavirus. When the inmates protested the move, the guards sprayed them with pepper and forced them to go to the other accommodation unit. The complaint states that Alexander contracted the virus as a result of a change of area.

Alexander has submitted several requests for release under a judge’s order calling for people with medical vulnerabilities to be released from immigration detention centers during the pandemic. According to the complaint, Alexander believes that ICE rejected his request because of his media appearances and other activist activities.

Under the judge’s order, the ICE said it would continue to keep some people in detention because of their criminal history.

When asked about this possibility in Alexander’s case, Langarica pointed out that immigration detention is civil and not criminal detention.

“ICE’s hands are not tied,” Langarica said. “ICE can release people and when people in detention are subject to serious illness or death as a result of their detention, ICE can and should release them. When he refuses to do so, especially with people who have taken action to demand better conditions for themselves and others, at the very least it deserves a very thorough investigation into whether ICE is engaging in retaliation. . “

Alexander also said in the complaint that he suffered retaliation from a CoreCivic unit manager identified as Handsbur about whom he lodged a complaint in early 2020 because she was yelling at them. inmates. In May 2021, he was transferred to the pod where she worked as head of unit.

Handsbur “berated” Alexander for having a chair in his cell, medical accommodation given to him, according to the complaint. In June, while receiving medical treatment, his chair was removed from his cell with a prayer blanket. Alexander protested their dismissal as harassment, and Handsbur wrote it down.

The next day, Alexander was in his cell undressing when Handsbur opened the door and looked at him in boxers. Despite Alexander’s repeated protests that he was undressed, Handsbur delayed his departure.

Alexander “was shaking, frightened and surprised by Handsbur’s unwarranted intrusion,” the complaint states. When he informed medical staff of the sexual harassment incident, an ICE officer identified as Redcay in the complaint accused him of lying.

“Why do you want to bite the hand that feeds you?” Redcay said, according to the complaint. “We’re not going to help you. You will stay here.

For Langarica, the allegation of retaliation through sexual harassment is particularly egregious.

“The allegations really expose the ways in which these facilities can exploit the vulnerability of those held there,” Langarica said.

Alexander has continued to face retaliation from Handsbur since the incident, according to the complaint.

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