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“Unmitigated Disaster”: Hunger Striker at Otay Mesa Detention Center Speaks Out as COVID-19 Spreads

Web ExclusiveJune 30, 2020
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We go inside Otay Mesa Detention Center in California to speak to Anthony Alexandre, a Haitian immigrant and longtime U.S. resident who has led two hunger strikes to protest dire conditions and a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the jail. ICE claims the coronavirus has infected at least 166 immigrants imprisoned there, but sources inside say the number is even higher. Alexandre has being jailed at Otay Mesa since February.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, where a mass outbreak of COVID-19 has infected at least 166 immigrants imprisoned there, but sources inside say the number is much higher.

Last week, a woman jailed at Otay Mesa filed a petition with a San Diego court alleging the detention center, run by private prison corporation CoreCivic, has failed to protect the more than thousand people imprisoned there from the coronavirus. Instead, the virus has devastated the population inside, while prisoners report dire conditions, lack of medical care, and the repeated use of pepper spray as retaliation.

In May, 57-year-old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, who came from El Salvador with his family in the '80s during the country's U.S.-backed civil war, died at Otay Mesa after contracting COVID-19. His fellow prisoners described days of horrible neglect that led to his death. When he died, Escobar Mejia had reportedly been in the hospital on a ventilator for over a week.

Immigrants detained at Otay Mesa are demanding their immediate release, as are the ACLU and other civil rights groups. ICE — that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement — says they’ve released at least 90 medically vulnerable people from the jail, but advocates say it’s not enough to curb the spread.

Well, for more, we’re going directly inside Otay Mesa to speak with Anthony Alexandre, a longtime U.S. resident and Haitian immigrant, who’s led two hunger strikes in protest of conditions at the jail.

Anthony, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe the conditions in the jail? And what about these hunger strikes? What’s happened to you inside? What are you demanding?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Well, we are still in a unmitigated disaster, that it’s — the condition is still dire. The amount of detainees that’s been affected with the positive here in Otay Mesa is around 250 detainees. And they still haven’t done anything to mitigate the situation. The lack of healthcare is still — we have between three to nine medical staff on any time on the premises.

And we decided to hunger strike, because we were asking for basic dignity. And as a retaliation, they pepper-sprayed us. This was really hard for us. It was really hard to breathe. It was about 20 minutes, when they came in and asked us that they’re going to put us in a unit that had 15 — 15 detainees that had tested positive. We didn’t want to leave, because our body was so feeble because we were on a hunger strike. And they decided to come in and pepper-spray us. There was like people on the floor. It was like 20 minutes, 20 minutes of pain. Just like you could see Floyd is struggling for air, that’s how we were at this point.

And they came in, dragged us out of our cell and put us to another unit to go to a pod where Carlos Escobar were. So they took 15 detainees that was on M pod to put them on L pod, that they just finished pepper-spraying. It was unbelievable. That’s what made the situation so pernicious, because they took Carlos at that time. We saw him gasping for air when they were putting him on L pod, which was the pod that we just left, they just finished pepper-spraying. They waited three days. After watching Carlos Escobar struggling for air, they waiting for three days to take him to outside medical. I could not believe that. That was something that is very negligent.

And they decided after that to take us to a medical unit that had three other detainees that tested positive, where we’re sharing phone. They’re not properly cleaning it. The cell where we were was dirty, filthy, dirty with bloodstain on walls, spit on the floor. I had to clean the cell myself, when I was so weak. It was unbelievable, unbearable in this facility.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anthony, I wanted to ask you — back in April, the prisoners were told to sign contracts that were written only in English, in exchange for receiving face masks. And I would assume that the vast majority of the detainees there are of Mexican or Central American origin. Many of them don’t speak English. What was your — and then they were pepper-sprayed when some refused?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Yes. The reason why this occurred is because they did not give us proper PPE at all. The mask they gave us was actually one-day use only. And they give you that twice every what? Two months? And we had to cut off pieces of clothing to make personal masks with that. So, because those property belong to them, they pepper-sprayed us for cutting pieces of those clothing to put as mask.

And they want you to sign to get those little instant masks that I’m just discussing with you right now. And most of these detainees does not speak English. And you have to sign for it. I was the one that’s trying to translate what it was, to make sure that everybody got one in my unit so they could be able to protect themselves. That is accurate. So, yes, this is indicative to how they behave when you don’t — when they don’t like you to do something, they just pepper-sprayed you. That’s indicative to how they behave.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, I wanted to play a video, a recording you made for the organization Otay Mesa Detention Resistance to play for California Governor Gavin Newsom during a meeting with his staff last month.

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: My name is Anthony Alexandre. I’m at Otay Mesa Detention Center. I’m a legal permanent resident for 30 years. I was born in Haiti. Governor, you have been a beacon of hope to all of us here. We believe that you are a pragmatic type of person, you will do the right thing. Governor Newsom, send the AG to investigate, or please tell us: What step are you going to take to save our lives?

AMY GOODMAN: So, Anthony Alexandre, do you know if the governor heard this? The conditions in the prison now, is it — are you still asked to sign a waiver, if you get a mask, if you want to get a mask, that would absolve CoreCivic of liability? This is a for-profit detention company, prison company, that runs Otay Mesa. Describe what CoreCivic is and whether the governor has responded.

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: The governor — 40 detainees on my unit, we signed a letter to Governor Newsom, and we sent it to their office. They sent back a letter saying that they wanted to speak to us, but we haven’t heard back from them ever since we had the first conversation.

Now, at Otay Mesa Detention Center, the last time they gave us a mask was at least a month and a half ago. These are cloth masks they give us, not those, you know, instant masks anymore. So they give us two masks. We have to wash them all the time.

And, you know, most of the detainees are not wearing any mask anymore, because we’re back in our unit. We try to keep it clean. They don’t allow us to go outside. They lock us up at least 18 hours a day now. And they’re giving us, three times a day fed bologna sandwiches.

So, basically, CoreCivic is telling us they do not care about our health. They do not care about anything else but their bottom line. So, this is not a place where you can be comfortable. They make it very difficult for you to breathe.

They tell us that we have to, if you don’t want to get infected — first of all, they say they’re not responsible for us if we get COVID-19. And they tell us that if you don’t want to test positive, you can sign for your deportation. So they’re basically using the COVID-19 to make us sign for our deportation.

This is not a place where you know they are doing — taking measures to make sure that our health is up to date. So, it’s very difficult to be relaxed in a place like this — stress everywhere, everybody’s getting sick, and you know you have to make sure that you wear a mask every day and gloves to be — I’m extremely vigilant because I suffer from an underlying condition. So, every time I go out of this 7-by-12 cell, I have to put a mask, wear gloves, to make sure that, you know, I don’t get sick, because I suffer from an underlying condition.

So, everybody in here, we’re all worried. Everybody thinks that, you know, if something happened to us, we might die. Some of these guys are signing letters to their family to say, you know, please — because after Escobar, we saw what had happened with Escobar, we all thought maybe we won’t make it, because some of these guys, this condition is so bad. Some of the — I remember seeing one guy slit his own throat. There was one other guy that swallowed a battery, you know, because they don’t want to go back to their country. And they don’t want to leave — they don’t want them to stay here in the U.S. So, this is very stressful being in here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anthony, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your story. You mentioned that you were a 30-year permanent resident of the United States. How did you end up at Otay Mesa? And also, how have you emerged as a leader of the detainees there, as you mentioned, most of whom are Spanish-speaking?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Well, because I spoke a little bit of Spanish, and I had another detainee here. You know, we believed in what we were doing. And when we decided to do the hunger strike, I told them that was the right thing to do, because I was watching Carlos Escobar. Going back and forth to medical unit, I was seeing the way they were dealing with people. And I thought that was the right thing to do, to do a hunger strike to make sure that I help them to make sure they get the proper PPE, asking for basic dignity. That’s all it was. So, we came together, and we decided to do this. Twenty-one of us decided to do the hunger strike.

And then [inaudible] came down and said, if we continue with this hunger strike, she’s going to make sure that we get deported. Some of the guys got scared. So I told them, “Listen, this can’t be, because what we are doing, there’s nothing nefarious about it. And we are just protesting peacefully. We’re just asking for basic dignity.” So, basically, there’s no judge in their right mind that would deport us just because we’re asking for something so simple. So they did. They followed through with us.

And then, you know, one of the guys that had been — he couldn’t even breathe. He had like a thing on his throat that he has to press all the time to speak. And they saw that, one of the medical units, and told us, “These guys cannot be here.” So, after that, the ACLU filed the injunction, and then a lot of detainees had left the place, which was good, because, you know — I wish that we had started that hunger strike sooner. At least Escobar’s saved life will be safe at this point.

Now, I was — I came here in San Diego to visit a girl, and a situation happened in 2011. They waited five years to take me to trial, which statute of limitation of the charges they took me to trial with was expired. I could not believe it. So there’s no equal protection under the law for all. That is really constitutional violations. And I told the court that. I showed them their paper: They made a mistake. They never, ever believed it. They just put a rubber stamp on my habeas corpus that I filed for them. And they just basically ignored, flat-out ignored, a judicial notice that I asked them to take. And I’m still in here.

AMY GOODMAN: So you served your time, and then you were taken, directly after you finished your prison term, to the detention center to be deported to Haiti?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you know when you will be deported, or if you will be?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Or not. Well, not at this point. Because of COVID-19, they keep postponing all the courts, because lawyers cannot come to the facility. And they keep postponing and said, you know, “Next month, next month,” until things are —

AMY GOODMAN: So, the guards use pepper spray even in a time of COVID-19, which is a respiratory disease. They’re saying something like 166 people inside have this, in the thousand-person jail, estimates. What do you estimate for the people who have COVID-19 inside? And how — you talked about the signing of the waivers. Are they in English? Are they in Spanish?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: The waivers are in English only.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have to sign a waiver to get the mask, as opposed to being told you must wear a mask to protect everyone.

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: No, you have to sign a waiver to have your own mask. They’re not making it mandatory for anybody to wear a mask. The only time they make it mandatory is when you leave your unit to go to medical, to go to the medical unit.

AMY GOODMAN: Final words, Anthony, as we wrap up here, speaking to us from inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center? What the external solidarity means to you? You have the Otay Mesa resistance movement outside. How do they get word inside? How do you get word out?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Well, this was difficult, because this is very important to hear. When I arrived here, I’ve been trying to vindicate my life, and ICE blocked me from vital information that would facilitate me to win my cases. They block numbers, like, for example, Otay Mesa Resistance. They block their numbers for us to call, because sometimes I would need information they’re doing that would help me out. They block those numbers. They’re making sure that we have — you watch specific shows they want to watch. We’re not allowed to speak to other detainees on the different units. It’s like having their foot on our necks.

They’re not allowing us to do the things that needs basic — basically, our right is violated. Our First Amendment right is violated. So, ACLU has filed them — filed a letter to let them know to cease and desist, because, you know, they’re not supposed to do that. So, basically, now they are allowing us to speak to the resistance again.

So, this is not United States of America. Once you arrive here, you will basically have no rights. That’s what they’re telling us. This is civil detention. It cannot be — we are both in a world — we are all in a world that none of us have lived before, so it cannot be business as usual. You know, and ICE cannot just ignore basic, basic dignity and have us being in here, where we could be on ankle monitors with our family. There’s no reason why they should keep us in here, unless profiting from our suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for Otay Mesa to be shut down, Anthony?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Yes, because we all — we don’t have to be here. We all could be home with our family on ankle monitors to fight our cases on the outside. What’s the point of being in here, if it was just not for profit?

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Alexandre, we want to thank you so much for being with us, longtime U.S. resident and Haitian immigrant, jailed at Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego since February. Since the coronavirus crisis began, he’s led multiple hunger strikes over conditions at the immigration jail, then pepper-sprayed along with a number of other of the detainees. ICE has the sole authority. It could simply release the prisoners being held there.

That does it for this segment. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. To see more of our coverage of Otay Mesa and what’s happening to prisons around the country, go to democracynow.org Thanks so much, and stay safe.

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 democracynow.org. 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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