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Death Trap Jail: Pepper-Sprayed, Otay Mesa Detainees Demand Release as COVID-19 Spreads Inside

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Image Credit: AFSC - San Diego

We look at the mounting number of COVID-19 cases inside immigration jails across the country and one of the largest outbreaks at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, run by private prison company CoreCivic. Prisoners were told to sign contracts, written only in English, in exchange for receiving face masks. When some refused to sign, guards pepper-sprayed them. This comes as activists say hundreds imprisoned in detention centers in California are on hunger strike. We get an update from Ruth Mendez, community activist and volunteer with Otay Mesa Detention Resistance.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is The Quarantine Report. We end today’s show looking at the mounting number of COVID-19 cases inside immigration jails across the country. One of the largest outbreaks is at the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, California, run by private prison company CoreCivic, which last week confirmed at least 27 cases of COVID among prisoners. Over the weekend, dozens there began a hunger strike to express growing fears about their safety.

Last Friday, Otay Mesa prisoners were told to sign contracts, written only in English, in exchange for receiving face masks. Some refused to sign, prompting guards to pepper-spray them. The waivers were reportedly later retracted. This is a woman in Otay Mesa describing the attack in her holding unit during a call with the immigration rights group Pueblos Sin Fronteras.

ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] They are throwing pepper spray in all the cells. We are on hunger strike because they are coming to throw food at us like dogs. We have rights. We are not criminals. There’s a woman who suffers from convulsions. They don’t want to give her her medicine. All of our rights are being violated. It is not fair. Please help us. Get us out. All the cells have been pepper-sprayed. There are many people who do not understand what is happening, because they don’t Spanish, they don’t speak English. Help us! They are removing people from each cell in handcuffs. Please, help us!

AMY GOODMAN: Activists say hundreds of people imprisoned in California immigration jails are currently hunger striking.

For more, we’re joined in San Diego by Ruth Mendez, community activist, volunteer with Otay Mesa Detention Resistance.

Ruth, can you describe what’s happening inside? These women were told they had to sign, in order to get a face mask, a contract that said they would not hold CoreCivic, which runs this for-profit prison, responsible?

RUTH MENDEZ: Yes. Yes, Amy. That is what happened. They were given forms and told, yeah, they had to sign this form, which was only given in English. I mean, there are people inside this detention center that don’t know Spanish or English at all. But yeah, this one was only given in English, and people were just told, “Sign it, quickly. If not, you don’t get a mask,” is what was basically said. It’s inhumane. Some people, from personal accounts that I’ve heard, were even charged money for this mask, a form they had to sign, too. And yeah, it’s just — it’s horrible, what’s happening.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ruth, to reaffirm, most of the people in ICE detention, they’re basically in — they’re not accused of any crimes. This is civil detention pending adjudication of their status. Isn’t there — what’s been the federal government’s attitude toward releasing these detainees?

RUTH MENDEZ: Currently, right now there are plenty of people who are ready to go reunite with their families. They have their sponsors. They have everything that is needed. Some are even — you know, they are looking for parole, to be released on parole, on bond, or on any kind of opportunity to be able to reunite with their families. But right now ICE has been not answering questions for people. There has been a block of just — like, for legal, for people to contact their lawyers, all kinds of blockages right now that make it impossible so that people can have their rights of finishing or processing their asylum cases — right? — in most of these times.

And so, that is — they’re just being held in a death trap, is what they’re being held. And it’s inhumane. We have countless accounts — sorry, so many accounts of people who, every single day, call into our organization telling us they just want to see their families, if it’s the last time they will be able to see them, at least just one more time, because at the rate that the COVID is going right now inside the detention center — just to give you a brief picture of what it looks like, just three days ago, the cases were already at 41 of confirmed cases inside. Just yesterday, I received a call with an update that it’s now 49 cases inside. That was given to a detainee inside by the medic of ICE. And so, yeah, it’s insane. And that has not made it out, and it’s been three days. So, it’s insane, what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a Genesis Hernández, a transgender woman being held at Otay Mesa, speaking to you, Ruth, last week about the abuse she’s endured at this jail. In this audio clip, she’s describing being retaliated against by Otay Mesa guards for making a phone call. She was recently put in solitary confinement.

GENESIS HERNÁNDEZ: [translated] And I thank you for being our voice out there, because in here, who’s going to listen to us? The guards don’t even wash their hands. They don’t care about our lives. I put on a face mask today, but then I took it off, because the guards are not covering their faces. They didn’t even have gloves on when they had me in handcuffs.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Mendez, is Genesis still in solitary confinement? And, I mean, you even have the former ICE director, John Sandweg, making very clear that ICE, in particular, has the sole authority to release all of these prisoners. He is demanding they do, as do many grassroots groups. And yet they haven’t done this yet. But start with Genesis.

RUTH MENDEZ: Yeah. So, Genesis, she’s still in solitary confinement right now. She cannot — does not have access to commissary. She does not have access — she has limited access to the phone. She is not able to even go to the library. She actually — we talked not too long ago. And it’s just these little things that make her — make it so much harder to be inside solitary right now. And it’s insane. She right now is a very strong woman that I admire so much. And it’s unfair, what has been happening to her.

Currently, right now she was only — because of that incident, that she like stood up for her, demanded answers from ICE and from just people around the staff of CoreCivic, she was, yeah, taken in handcuffs to solitary and given 15 days. However, that actually was doubled recently, so now it’s going to be 30 days. And she was not given a reason why that is happening. But she has told us on multiple times, just speaking to us personally, that she does not think she will last 30 days inside solitary confinement because of how terrible the conditions are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about, in general, in Otay Mesa, are most of the detainees being held in dormitory-style huge rooms, or are they all in a few people to a cell?

RUTH MENDEZ: Yeah, so, the units, as to what I understand, it’s difficult to get a — since the only way we can communicate and the only way that ICE and CoreCivic are letting there to be communication right now is through phone calls, but what I imagine is it’s pods, like units. So, there can be from a hundred people in one unit to 70 people. You know, the numbers vary between — among units. But yeah, there are — it’s social distancing and being able to follow CDC guidelines, it’s near — it’s impossible to do so inside of these places. And there have been cases where people who have gone to medical units and come back positive have been sent to the same units again to be with other people. And yes, we know, with this, with the pandemic, with COVID, it only takes a little bit for it to spread to everyone. So, that is in the conditions that they’re in currently.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruth, we want to thank you for being with us.

Also, this latest news: A federal judge in California has ordered ICE to urgently review the cases of prisoners most likely to suffer from the severe illness, these outbreaks of COVID, and he condemned the systemwide inaction in responding to the outbreak. Currently, about 31,000 people are in detention, in ICE detention.

Ruth Mendez, volunteer with Otay Mesa Detention Resistance in San Diego, thanks so much for being with us.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible to protect against community spread. The majority of our remarkable team is working from home. I want to give a special thanks to our general manager, Julie Crosby. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras and María Taracena. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Denis Moynihan, Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike DiFilippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. This is The Quarantine Report.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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