Nine migrants who were detained in Torrance County Detention Facility and a nonprofit called the Santa Fe Dreamers Project are suing the operator of the facility and Torrance County for an alleged incident when guards pepper sprayed the detainees to disrupt a hunger strike last year.
The nine individual plaintiffs are asylum seekers, mostly from Cuba and Guatemala. They engaged in a peaceful hunger strike in May 2020 to protest their living conditions, find out more information about their immigrant status and to protest the lack of COVID-19 precautions at the facility, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility, violated the individual plaintiffs’ rights to be free from excessive or arbitrary force when the guards sprayed the migrants in a small enclosed space with pepper spray a few days after the migrants began their hunger strike.
The lawsuit also alleges Torrance County failed in its duty to care for the people detained in the facility.
CoreCivic said in a statement through its public affairs manager, Ryan Gustin, that “even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19” in the facility, the company “rigorously followed guidance of local, state and federal health authorities.”
Torrance County did not respond to a request for comment.
Two of the migrants tried to die by suicide following the incident, according to the complaint. Several of the plaintiffs tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after the incident and most of the plaintiffs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety due to the incident, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, the plaintiffs began a peaceful hunger strike in early May 2020 to protest the lack of COVID-19 precautions, “dismal living conditions” and to request information on the status of their individual immigration cases.
A few days later an official with the facility “pressured” the detainees to end their hunger strike, the complaint states.
A short time later, guards at the facility allegedly sprayed the migrants with pepper spray in an enclosed area. The migrants screamed in pain and some lost consciousness, according to the complaint. When they tried to exit the room, the guards allegedly pushed them back into the fog of the pepper spray.
Nearly 20 minutes later, the guards sprayed the migrants with pepper spray a second time, the complaint states. When the migrants were allowed to leave the enclosed space, some had to be wheeled out in wheelchairs due to immobility or loss of consciousness, according to the complaint.
The guards did not provide instructions in Spanish and the migrants were not told how to properly wash off the chemical, the complaint states. Some were not allowed to shower until days later and, when they did, they reactivated the agent, causing further burning, the complaint says.
CoreCivic, in its email to NM Political Report, said that the staff at the facility “responded to a protest in a housing unit that was initiated by a group of detainees who became disruptive by refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff.”
The statement says facility staff tried unsuccessfully to “deescalate the situation,” then deployed pepper spray on the migrants, after which they “became compliant…”
The statement says that no injuries occurred and medical staff reviewed all individuals involved in the protest.
Several migrants involved in the incident spoke with Searchlight New Mexico last year and said that they had suffered injury due to guards spraying them with pepper spray.
The nonprofit organization Santa Fe Dreams Project experienced financial harm because it was forced to expand resources for the migrants to address the effects of the “attack,” according to the complaint.
Analía Rodríguez, executive director at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, said through a statement that the organization has joined the lawsuit “to stop CoreCivic from further harming those in our community who need our protection the most.”