Civil rights groups accuse ICE of retaliating against detainees who speak out

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A sign for the Otay Mesa Detention Center sits in front of the building Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in San Diego. The early absence of facial coverings, lack of cleaning supplies and mixing symptomatic detainees with others preceded the first big outbreak at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 221 detention centers. While the point of origin is unclear, accounts of how the virus spread at the Otay Mesa Detention Center expose shortcomings and inherent difficulties of managing the world’s largest immigration detention system during a pandemic. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – A coalition of civil rights groups filed a complaint Thursday against Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials and their contractors on behalf of eight detainees at California detention facilities — including the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego — who allegedly have faced retaliation for speaking out against the conditions of their detention.

The complaint alleges the First Amendment rights of the eight detainees have been violated, with punitive measures allegedly taken against those who air grievances or stage protests, hunger strikes and prayer vigils.

The complaint filed by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice and Centro Legal de La Raza alleges that guards have shot pepper bullets at those protesting, placed them in solitary confinement and denied access to food, medicine or legal counsel.

ICE representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations, nor did CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

The groups allege retaliation has been “pervasive and long-standing” at Otay Mesa, and that detainees “consistently disclose a fear of reporting instances of illegal conduct or substandard conditions because they will likely suffer harassment, solitary confinement, or worse from the facility’s employees.”

The complaint states that retaliatory measures were taken last year when detainees protested an alleged lack of protective measures amid a major COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, which led to the death of one detainee.

The detainee who died, 57-year-old Carlos Escobar-Mejia, as well as several others, were allegedly placed in solitary confinement after taking part in a hunger strike.

Other detainees were allegedly pepper sprayed for cutting up facility- provided clothing to fashion themselves face masks after they were provided “only with single-use masks on an infrequent basis.”

The complaint also alleges CoreCivic employees blocked detainees from speaking with “outside advocates.”

Other facilities targeted in the complaint include the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto and Golden State Annex in McFarland.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which investigates complaints filed by the public regarding department policies, activities and actions taken by department personnel.

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