During pandemic, a privately run detention center sought to find new migrants to detain

A private detention center in southern New Mexico sought to increase the numbers of detainees within its facility after the state declared a public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic. Management and Training Company (MTC), which operates the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC), sent a letter to Otero County Manager Pam Heltner dated March 31. The letter stated that due to an anticipated “significant decrease,” in migrant detainees, the company would terminate its agreement—but offered a solution. NM Political Report received the letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. The letter stated:

“MTC would be happy to explore with you the possibility of partnering with other state or federal agencies to co-locate detainees or inmates at the OCPC in order to increase the overall population at the facility and make MTC’s continued operation of the facility financially viable.”

MTC houses migrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Private prison operator CoreCivic is accused of ignoring a COVID-19 outbreak, putting inmates and the community at risk

In the first week of July, Freddie Sanchez began to feel a hot and cold tingling sensation in his neck and back. He had been imprisoned at Cibola County Correctional Center for two years and lived in a working pod, a unit of about 40 federal inmates who work in food preparation and other jobs at the prison while awaiting trial or sentencing. 

Feeling “sicker than heck,” Sanchez asked a guard about getting a COVID-19 test. He said the guard told him he was probably just withdrawing from drugs. “That’s messed up for someone to even say that,” Sanchez said. 

The next week, he noticed that one of the other kitchen workers was having trouble breathing. The inmate, who had asthma, confided that he was afraid to let himself fall asleep at night for fear he might not wake up.

Questions on COVID-19 among migrant detainees

When the state Department of Health reported a two-day spike in COVID-19 at Cibola County Correctional Center late last month, activists and lawyers who work with detained migrants didn’t know how many had tested positive. The Milan facility, run by a private company called CoreCivic, also houses federal prisoners under U.S. Marshals Service, as well as county prisoners. “We have one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world,” said Rebekah Entralgo, media advocacy specialist for the California organization Freedom for Immigrants which works with detainees. And she said by phone that the private companies that run detention centers “thrive off secrecy.”

Allegra Love, executive director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal services to immigrants, said her impression is that the migrant population at the Cibola facility is “low.”

“That information is almost impossible to get and CoreCivic isn’t compelled to tell us daily count numbers,” Love said. New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter to CoreCivic last week because of the recent spike in COVID-19 at the multi-use detention center.

Inmates in Cibola County protest over COVID-19 conditions

A small group of federal detainees held a protest on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the private company which runs the facility confirmed. Amanda Gilchrist, the director of public affairs for CoreCivic, the company that oversees the western Cibola County Correctional Center, said in a statement that the group of detainees were protesting their “quarantine status” and said the protest ended without injuries. “During the incident, these detainees blocked the pod door, covered the windows and cameras, and refused to comply with verbal directives provided by facility staff,” Gilchrist said in an email. 

She added that medical staff “reviewed the individuals involved in the protest” and that guards “Successfully restored order, with no injuries occurring as a result of this incident to detainees or staff.”

In May, guards at the Torrance County Detention Facility used pepper spray to subdue detainees, Searchlight New Mexico reported. The Cibola County Correctional Center houses federal detainees, which include those detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Last week, the facility saw a significant increase of COVID-19 cases.

Imprisoned migrants seeking better prison conditions describe an attack by pepper- spraying guards

ESTANCIA, N.M. – The migrants were on a days-long hunger strike when guards entered their prison dormitory in full riot gear —gas masks, shields and canisters of pepper spray. The officers corralled the two dozen or so inmates into a huddled mass. Two men fell to their knees, begging them not to attack. “Suddenly, they just started gassing us,” said Yandy Bacallao, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Cuba. “You could just hear everyone screaming for help.”

At least one person collapsed.

How much did state Senate candidates raise and where did they spend it?

Planned Parenthood, through its various PACs, is spending $390,000 on the New Mexico primary, and the bulk of that on three races. Sarah Taylor-Nanista, executive director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains Action Fund, said the nonprofit organization is “laser focused” on the progressives running against the seven Democratic incumbents who voted against HB 51 last year. HB 51 would have repealed a 1969 abortion law that abortion rights supporters worry will become law again if Roe v. Wade is overturned. But of the seven, there are three races in particular where Planned Parenthood is spending the bulk of its money. Those are Neomi Martinez-Parra’s race against state Sen. John Arthur Smith for Senate District 35; Siah Correa Hemphill’s fight to unseat state Sen. Gabriel “Gabe” Ramos for Senate District 28; and Pam Cordova’s challenge against state Sen. Clemente Sanchez for Senate District 30.

Legislators hold hearing, hear public comments on private prisons that hold immigrants

An interim committee hearing included harsh criticisms and personal stories of detention at private facilities which have contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee held a hearing Monday afternoon concerning two privately-operated prisons in New Mexico that detain immigrants. These include Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, which is run by CoreCivic, and the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, which is run by Management and Training Corporation. Legislators heard from an immigration attorney, advocates for immigrants and some in the country without authorization. The committee invited Ronald D. Vitello, the acting director of ICE, but he did not attend or even acknowledge the invitation.

‘I felt like I was dying’: In handwritten letters, detained immigrant fathers describe family separation

In letters scrawled by hand, five immigrant fathers detained in New Mexico describe being separated from their children at the border and the uncertainty of when — or whether — they will be reunited. The men describe their anguish at being taken from their children and not knowing their children’s whereabouts for weeks or months. “I felt like I was dying,” wrote one father, who did not give his name or country of origin. The Legislature’s Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee heard their stories at a hearing July 16 on privately run immigrant prisons in the state. About 70 fathers who were separated from their children are currently being held at Cibola County Correctional Center, according to Allegra Love, director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal advocacy organization.

“A black hole of due process” in New Mexico

In December 2016, a 24-year-old small business owner, who asked to be identified as “Boris,” joined a protest in his native Cameroon. The country’s English-speaking minority of nearly 5 million people had begun coalescing into a movement for equal rights, “to tell the government our griefs, to make them understand that we have pain in our hearts,” Boris, who was recently granted asylum after five months inside Cibola County’s immigrant detention center, tells New Mexico In Depth. Teachers and lawyers led the first wave of dissent that October. The educators fought for their students to learn in English. The attorneys argued their clients should stand before judges who spoke their own language.

Inside a private prison’s $150M deal to detain immigrants in New Mexico

Just shy of his third year in the United States, 24-year-old oil pipeline worker Diego Navarro said goodbye to his California friends. It was early April, and the Oklahoma resident was anxious to return home, having used a break in his work schedule to make the trip west. Navarro, who entered the U.S. without documentation in 2014, typically worked 10- to 14-hour days as part of the country’s petroleum processing machine. But at a stop for gas during the drive back with a friend, Navarro was swept up in the billion-dollar business of private immigrant detention instead. This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area.