Jail guards pepper-sprayed the unit as immigrants lay down on the ground, screaming and coughing. The officers shot pepper ball rounds that ricocheted off jail tables, broken pieces striking a detainee’s eye. Fumes lingered in the air and made it hard for the detainees to breathe.
Immigrants who spoke with BuzzFeed News described the scene at the Adelanto ICE Processing Facility in Southern California on June 12 when private prison guards contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement pepper-sprayed and shot pepper balls against more than 150 detainees following a protest. Four detainees were taken to the hospital afterward.
Alejandro Ramirez said he and fellow immigrants were protesting rolling lockdowns of the jail in advance of a planned demonstration outside the facility by refusing the guards’ orders to return to their cells. In the weeks prior, demonstrators had broken a window and injured an Adelanto employee, according to the Victorville Press.
As a result of their protest, the detainees were pepper-sprayed. Another immigrant who spoke with BuzzFeed News said he saw multiple detainees pass out. A Los Angeles Times report described a detainee having a seizure, and another being hit by rubber bullets “as he told them he had leukemia.”
One of the pepper balls used struck a table, Ramirez said, and a broken piece cut his eye.
Ramirez told BuzzFeed News in July he couldn’t see out of one of his eyes for three days.
“We are numbers to them," he said. "We are not people. They are not going to listen to us. They are going to follow their rules. There is nothing we can do.”
He was later deported to Mexico.
The force used in Adelanto, which ICE said was needed to “preserve order” after multiple unsuccessful attempts to de-escalate, is the latest in a series of similar incidents since the beginning of the pandemic.
ICE officials do not proactively report these cases unless media outlets request the information, and the agency does not compile data from use-of-force incidents within detention centers nationwide. BuzzFeed News, however, reviewed internal government reports and has found that there has been a substantial increase in uses of force during the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the end of March through the beginning of July, guards at detention centers across the country deployed force — pepper spray, pepper balls, pepper spray grenades — in incidents involving more than 10 immigrants at a time on a dozen occasions, according to a review of internal reports.
In total, more than 600 detainees have been subjected to these group uses of force. Other reports obtained by BuzzFeed News do not list how many detainees were affected. In one event, detention guards pepper-sprayed underneath a door after some detainees protested being isolated due to potential COVID-19 exposure, according to an internal report.
The recent figures stand in contrast to the period before the pandemic. In the six months prior to the health emergency — from September to March — there were two use-of-force incidents against more than 10 detainees, according to a review of the documents BuzzFeed News obtained.
ICE officials acknowledged the recent uptick, which they attributed to disruptive detainees.
“During the pandemic, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has seen more incidents where groups of detainees become confrontational with staff, sometimes acting in ways that are unsafe for the general population,” said Danielle Bennett, a spokesperson for the agency. “When such incidents occur, and staff is unable to deescalate the situation through other means, the use of OC spray is permitted and consistent with agency protocols, as described in the detention standards, to preserve order and maintain a safe environment.”
Medical experts, however, said the increased use of pepper spray during the pandemic in a closed space was concerning.
“It’s a bad idea. Pepper spray is an irritant of the respiratory system and often causes people to cough, and we know that cough increases the spread of virus,” said Marc Stern, a public health expert and faculty member at the University of Washington. “It comes with an additional risk that did not exist in pre-COVID times.”
Stern said guards should weigh whether using pepper spray could increase the risk of spreading the disease through the use of pepper spray inside the jails.
The incidents often follow a similar pattern, with force being used after detainees refuse commands from guards. Some incidents have been directly tied to the pandemic: detainees protesting conditions, resisting being quarantined, or being moved within the facility. ICE officials say that detainees involved were disruptive, disregarded orders, and in some cases were violent.
Immigrants and their advocates, however, believe the use of force is unjustified and excessive.
“The lack of transparency into these facilities have allowed guards to use force —including pepper spray, rubber bullets, and physical force — with impunity. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has only grown worse, due in part to the fear of people in detention as the virus continues to spread in facilities, sickening and killing people,” said Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU.
Laura Rivera, the director of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, said that detainees are advocating for “freedom” during the pandemic due to fears they will contract the disease in custody.
“In return, ICE routinely retaliates with ruthless force. Clad in riot gear, guards deploy pepper spray, pepper-ball ammunitions, and physical force,” she said.
Medical experts and immigrant advocates have warned that the highly contagious disease puts everyone in detention at risk. They’ve pointed out that detention centers have a lack of necessary space to accommodate proper social distancing guidelines. ICE has countered that the agency has ramped up testing and released many detainees who are medically vulnerable. As of late July, nearly 1,000 detainees had tested positive for COVID-19 and almost 4,000 had gotten the disease in custody.
In one incident, ICE medical officials held a meeting about COVID-19 at a detention center in Louisiana, according to a government document obtained by BuzzFeed News. During the class, a group of detainees began protesting and ignored the guards’ orders. Pepper spray was soon used to keep a group of detainees from escaping an area of the jail, the report stated.
In March, Mother Jones reported that an attorney representing a woman in the detention center said that she was told that "the women were coughing, crying, and that some fainted throughout the approximately one hour that they were locked in the room with tear gas.”
Later, in May, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office used pepper spray on 25 detainees after they refused to be tested for COVID-19. Sheriff’s officials said that the immigrants “rushed violently” at correctional officers and broke windows in the facility. Advocate groups have denied the allegations. The ACLU has since sued to get video footage from the incident.
Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken, a minister at the First Parish in Bedford, said she got a call from one detainee the night the incident occurred.
He told her that the sheriff’s officials had grabbed him, and that the detainees had been sprayed in the face and in the mouth.
"They want to take us to the other unit to be tested, we don’t want to go on the other unit for cross-contamination, we want to be tested, but not moved,” she said the detainee told her.
The most recent incident came on July 1 at the Immigration Center of America in Farmville, Virginia, where more than 40 detainees were pepper-sprayed after they refused to return to their cells for a day population count. The detention center’s warden said in a federal court filing that the detainees had congregated in the center’s day room instead.
“Several officers and supervisors spoke with them and attempted to persuade them to return to their bunks in Dorm 7 on their own,” he said in the affidavit filed in federal court as part of a lawsuit filed by Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition over the conditions in center. “After about thirty minutes, I authorized the use of pepper spray. Four of the detainees picked up chairs and used them as weapons against the officers. A total of 11 detainees became violent and are now isolated from the rest of Dorm 7 for disciplinary and safety reasons.”
The incident came as the detention center has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases. As of early July, there were more than 250 detainees with the disease. Advocates have called the situation an “outbreak” and a “human rights crisis.”
In June, the detention center received 74 detainees from Arizona and Florida, 51 of whom tested positive for the disease.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this egregious use of force had to do with the erupting COVID-19 outbreak that resulted from the ICE transfers. Our clients described feeling scared and sick, not getting adequate food or medical attention, people passing out in the dorms — they were simply trying to get answers and to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Sirine Shebaya, head of the National Immigration Project. “Instead, the guards attacked them with pepper spray and escalated a disastrous situation of their own making."