Warning: Video above contains graphic content that may be difficult to watch
ESTANCIA, N.M. (KRQE) – Asylum-seekers in county jail were pepper-sprayed during a hunger strike — and it was all caught on camera. Now, a year later, some of them are suing the county and the company that runs the jail.
At least nine immigrants who were in civil detention at the Torrance County Detention Facility are now involved in a lawsuit after they were pepper-sprayed with the exits blocked. The ICE detainees, seeking asylum, were at the facility on May 14, 2020. They say they went on a peaceful hunger strike for COVID-related conditions and because they weren’t getting updates on their immigration cases. Guards at the facility responded with a less-than-peaceful approach.
“They posed no threat to any guard and did not break any facility rules,” said Nadia Cabrera-Mazzeo, an attorney with ACLU of New Mexico. “This reaction on part of the warden and the guards was just completely uncalled for.”
Video shows guards entering the wing where the immigrants were housed — many of the immigrants naked or barely clothed — then the guards lined up, blocking the exits. Minutes later, the guards begin firing pepper spray into the enclosed area, along with throwing pepper grenades.
“This is not the same kind of pepper spray you see at Walmart or people carry on their keychains,” said Cabrera-Mazzeo. “It is industrial grade and guards sprayed it directly into our clients’ faces and onto their skin in an unventilated room during the pandemic of a respiratory disease.”
When trying to run out, guards kept them from leaving the room. Cabrera-Mazzeo, one of the attorneys on the suit, says many lost consciousnesses and had medical conditions like asthma, and that the jail’s own policies prohibit that kind of force on someone with those conditions. When moved to the showers, attorneys say their clients had their hands zip-tied behind their backs and were not properly decontaminated. She says following the incident, two of her clients attempted suicide.
“The decontamination process was completely botched. The first few that can be seen going into the showers still had their hands tied. They were unable to operate the showers nor did they understand what decontamination procedures they were supposed to be doing,” said Cabrera-Mazzeo, who says her clients spoke Spanish and did not receive the proper explanation in their language. “A lot of them had the chemical irritants on their skin for days after the attack.”
Now, the ACLU and New Mexico Immigrant Law Center are representing at least nine of those detainees. They’re suing Torrance County and CoreCivic, which employs the guards at the facility.
“There’s no reason to subject people fleeing persecution in their home countries to further abuse and violence in unnecessary detention in the U.S.,” said Cabrera-Mazzeo. “There is no requirement that ICE detain asylum seekers; that is their choice and they do it for no apparent reason.”
The ACLU says many of those involved with the hunger strike were moved to other detention facilities across the country or deported after the incident, so it’s been hard to get in touch with some for the lawsuit. There were around 20 people involved in the strike.
KRQE News 13 reached out to officials with Torrance County, which was also listed in the lawsuit but have not heard back. News 13 also reached out to CoreCivic. Spokesperson Ryan Gustin issued the following statement, saying the detainees refused to comply with verbal orders, which is why staff deployed OC spray:
On Thursday, May 14, at approximately 12:35 p.m. MDT, staff at the Torrance County Detention Facility responded to a protest in a housing unit that was initiated by a group of detainees who became disruptive by refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff.
After attempts by facility staff to deescalate the situation were unsuccessful, the facility staff deployed oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as “OC” spray. After the deployment of OC, the detainees became compliant and staff was able to mitigate further risk of injury to both detainees and staff.
No injuries occurred as a result of this incident to detainees or staff. Medical staff reviewed all individuals involved in the protest.
CoreCivic leadership and facility staff worked closely with our government partner, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), throughout the protest. If additional information is needed, we encourage you to be in contact with ICE Public Affairs.