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.
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.
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.”