by David M. Reutter
Detainees at CoreCivic’s Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC) in California were enthusiastic when told they would be issued face masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. The mood changed quickly when employees conditioned that issuance on the signing of a contract that held CoreCivic “harmless” from wearing the mask.
OMDC holds immigration detainees for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and criminal defendants for the U.S. Marshals Service. As of April 11, 2020, at least 16 detainees at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. One of those was a woman in “A” pod, which holds immigration detainees.
The women in that pod had been anxious to protect themselves, and made handmade face masks with rubber bands, panty-liners, and cut-up T-shirts. The detainees complained they lacked personal protective equipment and soap to wash their hands, so when they learned they were being issued facemasks, it was seen as good news.
Then, however, CoreCivic’s profitability took precedence over protecting the detainees from a deadly disease. Prior to passing out the masks, the unit manager handed out contracts written in English, telling the women they must sign before they were issued a mask.
The document included a section saying the detainees agree to “hold harmless” CoreCivic and its agents and employees “from any and all claims that I may have related directly to my wearing the facemask,” the Union-Tribune reported. When translating it into Spanish, the unit manager reportedly omitted the “hold harmless” section. A bilingual detainee pointed out the omission to other detainees, and they became angry.
Most refused to sign, and the unit manager reiterated that masks would not be issued unless they did. “We were upset. We were being loud,” detainee Briseida Salazar said. “But we all were upset because she was not doing her job right. She wasn’t giving us the information we needed.”
Their protest was allegedly met with a threat of pepper spray, a threat that CoreCivic called “patently false.”
Three women, including the one who recognized the translation error, were moved out of the pod. “We all came out and said if they’re going to get punished, we’re all going to get punished,” Salazar said.
The women decided to start a hunger strike that would not end until the three women were returned to the pod. About five hours later, CoreCivic issued the masks, requiring the women to initial that they had received them. The three women removed from the pod were also returned.
“No waiver will be required to receive a mask,” said CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. In the face of a deadly global pandemic, that would should have been the default move.
California Senator Kamala Harris called for the Office of the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General to investigate the incident, which should include review of security footage of the facility to confirm the allegations. She also asked for the release of at-risk detainees during the pandemic.
Four detainees particularly vulnerable to the virus have since been released due to the efforts of the ACLU and others. The number of prisoners and detainees testing positive for the virus grew to 217 by May 10, The San-Diego Union-Tribune reports.
In May, a federal judge denied a request to release medically vulnerable prisoners.
Writer Kevin Bliss contributed to this report.
Sources: latimes.com, kpbs.org, sandiegouniontribune.com
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