Detained people at what is currently the immigration detention facility with the worst novel coronavirus outbreak in the nation were finally, finally offered face masks last week—but it came with a stipulation. The San Diego Union Tribune reports staffers tried to force detainees into signing a document freeing CoreCivic—the private prison profiteer contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to run California’s Otay Mesa Detention Center—from any liability. No signature, no mask.
But detainees weren’t even being told what they were signing in the first place, just that they had to do it. “When the unit manager began to verbally translate the document into Spanish, one of the bilingual detainees noticed that she skipped the ‘hold harmless’ section in her translation,” The San Diego Union Tribune said. “She pointed that out to the other detainees, and they became angry. Most refused to sign, noting that they should be given forms in their own languages. Some in the pod speak neither English nor Spanish.”
Women from the units had been making their own protective face masks out of panty liners, torn shirts, and rubber bands, the report said, and had initially been ecstatic they’d now be afforded some dignity in trying to protect their lives since officials won’t do it. But when they found out they’d need to sign something first—and were being deceived in the process—they were rightfully outraged. “We were upset,” Briseida Salazar said according to the report. “We were being loud. But we all were upset because she was not doing her job right. She wasn’t giving us the information that we needed.”
”When the women demanded to be given masks, they were threatened with pepper spray, according to the multiple accounts,” the report continued, and “three women, including the one who had recognized the translation error, were taken away.” Otay Mesa’s attempt to silence the detainees through fear failed, with Salazar saying the remaining women agreed they’d hunger strike until the three were returned. A few hours later, Otay Mesa backed down, returning the three and distributing masks with no strings attached.
A second The San Diego Union Tribune report said that people jailed at Otay Mesa have been in a state of panic following 16 detainees, seven staffers, and one ICE officer testing positive for COVID-19 as of this past weekend. While no new detainees are being transferred there for now, detained people already feel that “measures taken to protect them have felt too little and too late,” The San Diego Union Tribune continued. Meanwhile, Otay Mesa already has a despicable history of detainee mistreatment.
Last year, a Guatemalan asylum-seeker who survived a gunshot wound to the head was prescribed ibuprofen as treatment for head pain so excruciating he would lose consciousness. “Records show that on one visit, a nurse told him to drink more water and ‘wash hair/head thoroughly,’” The Guardian reported. That same year, Nebane Abienwi, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker, died from a brain hemorrhage while in custody. “Black immigrants, in particular, report horrific experiences of anti-blackness, abuse, and harassment while in detention,” the Black Alliance for Just Immigration said.
This abuse continues in the form of ICE refusing to release more detainees amid a pandemic that is raging through its facilities. As of April 10, ICE has confirmed 61 cases among detainees in over 10 states. “The horrifying conditions at Otay Mesa Detention Center are unacceptable,” Sen. Kamala Harris said in a statement demanding the release of people from the facility. “Every day that officials continue to lock up low-risk and vulnerable people is another day that people in U.S. custody along with countless facility and court personnel, legal representatives, witnesses, and family members are put at risk of a preventable death from a deadly virus.”