Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

ICE Detainees Pepper-Sprayed Over Hunger Strike

“Suddenly they just started gassing us. You could just hear everyone screaming for help,” Yandy Bacallao, a 34-year-old Cuban asylum claimant, told Searchlight New Mexico.

A CoreCivic spokesman confirmed that the incident took place. Ryan Gustin said on the company’s behalf that officers pepper-sprayed “a group of detainees who became disruptive by refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff.” Gustin referred further questions to ICE, which had no response to requests for comment.

Torrance County Manager Wayne Johnson was skeptical of inmate accounts, saying he had no confirmation that the incident had even happened, but suspects “there’s more to it than what you’ve been told.”

The county recorded $90,000 in income from CoreCivic last fiscal year, when the site started housing migrants, and expects annual revenue from the arrangement to climb to about $130,000 per year.

Bacallao and two other detainees provided additional details. After almost three dozen cases of the coronavirus were identified at the facility, the men began asking for community release while awaiting resolution of their cases, and about policies to control the virus.

The hunger strike over food conditions was already underway when COVID-19 cases started to rise, and detainees’ fears of the virus spread increased their determination to press their case.

Instead of answering the migrants’ inquiries, Bacallao says a prison official came into their dorm on May 14 to warn them that “it was going to get ugly,” unless the men ended their strike.

The migrants were told they could exit the dorm and a couple of them did before guards entered in gas masks and full riot gear, corralling the remaining men.

“It felt like I had been burned with gasoline,” said another Cuban asylum seeker. “I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die.”

Bacallao said following the attack, the men were handcuffed and placed in holding cells, after nurses did a cursory check. Some were carried out on stretchers or in wheelchairs, one with a head wound, according to witnesses. Trying to wash out their eyes with water from the sink made the effects of the irritants worse, they said.

Said the Searchlight story: “Bacallao was briefly checked by a nurse before being placed in a holding cell with one other migrant. The two could barely see – pepper spray can cause temporary blindness – but they managed to navigate their way to a sink in the cell where they tried to wash themselves off. The water only made it worse. Bacallao stood still for an hour with his arms outstretched; it was too painful to let anything touch his skin.”

According to Gustin, the CoreCivic spokesman, medical staff reviewed everyone after the protest and “no injuries occurred.”

According to medical experts, chemical irritants like pepper spray are exceedingly problematic when respiratory diseases like COVID-19 are involved. Pepper spray worsens symptoms for those already infected, and induces coughing, increasing the spread of the disease.

ICE policy allows for the use of pepper spray to “gain control” of detainees, as long as detention facilities keep records of any such uses of force. ICE declined to share any records from the May 14 incident.

This is the third time Bacallao has sought political asylum in the United States, according to the article: “He first tried to flee Cuba about five years ago with about a dozen others on a makeshift boat a little smaller than two king-sized mattresses. They were headed toward Cancún, Mexico, and planned to make the rest of the journey by land. At the time, the United States was operating under the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy: Cuban migrants caught at sea were turned away, while those who arrived by land were allowed to stay… Bacallao wanted to join them. But after a week in the open water, his boat ran out of gas, and the crew jettisoned the motor to stay afloat. The craft drifted toward American waters, and after a few weeks, Bacallao was apprehended wet-footed and sent back home. 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login