Immigrant Detainees At Adelanto Say Officers Pepper-Sprayed Them For Peacefully Protesting

FILE PHOTO: The segregation block at the Adelanto Detention Facility phototgraphed in 2013. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Our news is free on LAist. To make sure you get our coverage: Sign up for our daily newsletters. To support our non-profit public service journalism: Donate Now.

Immigrant detainees at Adelanto Detention Center say they were injured or left struggling to breathe after officers in riot gear shot pepper bullets and discharged pepper spray at them earlier this month in an incident that until now has gone unreported.

Four detainees were treated at an off-site medical facility, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have acknowledged.

Multiple detainees told LAist that officers used that force against them as they staged a peaceful protest against continuing lockdown conditions. They said those conditions included the requirement that they remain in their cells for at least 23 1/2 hours a day.

ICE officials acknowledged that staff used "non-lethal force," which they said was necessary to ensure detainees' and staff members' safety.

The for-profit privately run facility — which has been the focus of several civil rights lawsuits — currently houses about 930 detainees who are awaiting decisions from immigration courts on their immigration status or efforts to fight deportation.

'WE COULD HARDLY BREATHE'

Edgar Guillen told us that he was standing near his cell door on Friday, June 12, when an official told detainees to go inside of their dorms for a lockdown. Guillen said they were told a protest was happening outside the facility.

He said he and others refused. Some people sat on the floors and others stood outside their dorms. They yelled: "We respectfully refuse."

"That's when they started spraying and shooting [pepper balls]," Guillen recalled by phone. "I felt scared. I felt threatened because of the way they came at us."

He said about 15 officers, decked out in SWAT-like gear, came into the housing unit. A paintball-like bullet loaded with pepper spray exploded near his face.

"That's when I went into my room and started throwing up, and my eyes were burning," Guillen said. "That night was crazy. I couldn't see. My whole body was burning. I had to get up a few times and throw water on my body. We coughed the whole night."

"We could hardly breathe," said another detainee in Guillen's unit, who didn't want to be identified. "They didn't really seem to care if they hit one of us."

He added: "We never acted aggressively towards them. So why did they do it to us?"

The detainee and Guillen each told us they saw another detainee having a seizure on the floor.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement that "the facility went into lockdown June 12, in response to a planned protest." The agency says a lockdown is implemented "in response to an immediate or imminent threat to the safety, security, and order of the facility."

That same day, a small protest was underway outside the facility. "There were only 50 protestors in attendance," said Jodi Miller, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department. "The protest was peaceful, there were no incident[s], and no arrests were made."

Detainees in several of the housing units in the facility's "West" building told us they protested the lockdown order by standing outside of their dorms or sitting on the floors in the community room outside of their cells. LAist has heard consistent accounts of the events from six current detainees, a seventh detainee who has since been released, and at least six attorneys who represent detainees.

In an email sent to LAist on June 21, ICE spokesperson Alexx Pons wrote:

"During this time, an internal disturbance, which included more than 150 detainees who became disruptive and refused multiple directives from facility staff, necessitated the use of non-lethal force to preserve order and ensure the safety of everyone within the facility after multiple attempts to deescalate the situation were unsuccessful and as disruptions continued."

He said the use of pepper balls and pepper spray "was needed" because of "the large number of detainees actively participating in the disruption and refusing staff orders."

Four detainees were transferred to a nearby medical facility "and were evaluated, treated, and returned to Adelanto without requiring admission," Pons said.

The use of force comes as public health officials are battling the threat of the coronavirus, and detention centers across the country have experienced outbreaks. As of Sunday, the Adelanto detention center had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19. Health officials say the virus can spread through coughing and sneezing, which can be exacerbated by irritants such as tear gas and pepper spray.

CONTINUED RESTRICTIONS

In a separate housing unit, Alexis Gonzalez, who has since been released from the facility, said he and his fellow detainees didn't want to go into "lockdown" — also known as "modified programming" — that Friday because the facility had already been in lockdown for several days earlier that week.

"We got upset, too, because they were turning off the phones. For guys, that's the only way to talk to their families, their kids," he said.

The weekend prior, detainees had been restricted to their cells following a June 7 protest outside of the facility, Gonzalez and other detainees told us. That outside protest had resulted in an injury to an Adelanto employee, an arrest, shattered windows at the facility and damage to more than two dozen cars that belonged to employees, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.

ICE said Adelanto "entered modified programming" June 7-9 and again from June 12-14.

Gonzalez, the recently released detainee, said that when they were told on June 12 about yet another lockdown, detainees wanted to know why. They had nothing to do with the protests outside the facility, he said, and felt they were being unfairly forced to pay the consequences.

That's when detainees in his unit held their own demonstrations.

"When they came to our dorm, instead of standing up, we sat down because that was a show that we're not going to be violent. We're just going to sit down and just not go to our room," Gonzalez said. "We were not a threat."

He said an official entered their room to tell the detainees they were in "violation code" and that officers would be taking "measures" if they didn't go into lockdown. Next, Gonzalez said, a group of about two dozen officers in riot gear came into the housing unit.

"We didn't think that the 'measures' were going to be necessarily spraying us, hitting us with pepper balls," he said. "I think one guy on the ground passed out."

Gonzalez told us he'd been sitting on the ground by his dorm when officers came in. He insists the protests were peaceful and that guards used unnecessary force.

"It was pretty bad. After it stopped, you couldn't really rub your face," he said, adding that guards gave detainees time to wash their faces, but did not allow them to shower for two days.

"So you could still feel the fumes in your fingers," Gonzalez said. "If you rub your eyes, you feel the little sting, and when you breathe, you can still feel the taste. For two days, it was just like that."

Pons, the ICE spokesperson, told us the agency follows national detention standards, and that "detainees are able to shower and utilize the day room, law library and outdoor recreation with reasonable respect to privacy and considerations to safety and security."

But other detainees corroborated Gonzales's claim that they were denied phone use and showers.

"It appears that whenever my clients try to advocate for themselves, they are retaliated against or ignored," said Margaret Hellerstein, a staff attorney at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a nonprofit that represents several detainees being held at Adelanto. She told us detainees gave her similar accounts about the June 12 incident.

A FRAGMENT IN THE EYE

Detainee Alejandro Ramirez said he was sitting on the floor in the same housing unit as Gonzalez. He was about 8 feet away from his dorm, he said, when about 20 guards in riot gear entered the housing unit and started shooting pepper pellets.

Ramirez said he was hit in the right eye with a fragment or pellet that had ricocheted off a surface.

"I was not able to breathe. There was way too much pepper," he said. Ramirez told us that one man lost consciousness and was taken away by two officers. He said he also witnessed officers pepper-spraying a man in the face.

Ramirez told us he was taken for medical treatment for his eye, and said he was recently seen by an eye doctor.

"I was having blood in my eye, but the blood is going away and my view is coming back," he said.

After the incident, the facility went on lockdown again and detainees were restricted to their cells the following Saturday, Sunday and Monday (June 13, 14 and 15), Ramirez said, adding that on Friday June 19, one week after the incident, he was still only given 30 minutes to leave his dorm.

'PLEASE DON'T DO THIS AGAIN'

Three detainees in yet another housing unit described a similar series of events on June 12. One said he and his unit mates were asking the guards why the facility was going on lockdown yet again.

"We just asked if they can explain what the reason is for lockdown," he said. "And they just refused to answer."

He said about half the housing unit, which had about 40 people, was in the day room.

"I was right there sitting in the day room with everybody, and when all that started happening, it started happening really fast, everything was covered with the spray, the pepper spray. You couldn't really breathe," he said.

A 55-year-old detainee said he went back into his cell but had trouble breathing because of the pepper spray. He told us he had an existing medical issue — a nodule in this right lung — but he didn't get medical attention, despite asking for it.

"I'm getting sharp pains more often in my right lung," he said. "They haven't called me, they locked us up and just ignored us."

He said detainees weren't allowed to leave their cells, even for a shower, for the next two days.

A third detainee described officers shooting "paintballs and tear gas." He said both he and his cellmate got hit, and he participated in a hunger strike for days after the incident.

Daniela Hern√°ndez Chong Cuy, an immigration attorney, was at the facility that Friday for an immigration court hearing. When she sat in the waiting area mid-morning, she said she saw about three officers in riot gear.

"God knows what they thought was going to happen," she said.

Chong Cuy left the facility, but found out days later that one of her clients had been sent to solitary confinement after the incident. Her client told her he was participating in a lockdown protest.

"It was just their way of saying, 'Please don't do this again. Let us use the day room. Let us use the shower. Let us use the phone to speak with our attorneys, our family,'" Chong Cuy told us.

She said her client was outside of his cell when officers pepper-sprayed him.

"They threw him to another cell. He had to cover his face with a wall" and was then put into "segregation" or solitary confinement, she said. "This is a particular concern to me, because this is a client that suffers schizophrenia."

Karina Licea, a paralegal at Al Otro Lado, a nonprofit serving immigrant detainees, spoke with a detainee in his 30s who said he was injured from the incident and placed in solitary confinement.

"Our client described that he felt very disoriented," she said. "He ended up being shot with, he said, rubber bullets, twice."

She said her client had lost consciousness and woke up in a medical bed.

Lisa Okamoto, directing attorney at the nonprofit Immigrants Defenders Law Center, said she was able to speak with one of her clients by phone less than a week after the incidents.

The client didn't describe a protest, but told her that when guards came to do counts around 6:30 p.m. on June 12, about two detainees in his unit had refused to go inside their cells.

By that time, her client was already inside his bunk, but he said about six or seven guards in SWAT-type gear came inside and shot about six rounds of what looked like "paintballs," hitting the doors of the bunks.

FOR-PROFIT AND CONTROVERSIAL

The exterior of the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Adelanto ICE Processing Center can house approximately 2,000 unauthorized immigrants, asylum seekers, and some who have been transfered from prisons. The facility is run by The GEO Group, a private corrections company known for its political influence, which signed a new contract late last year and is expanding the facility.

Adelanto has been the target of several lawsuits from advocacy groups over civil rights violations. In 2018, government inspectors found a number of issues that posed "significant health and safety risks at the facility."

Earlier this year, a group of former Adelanto detainees settled a civil rights lawsuit against The GEO Group. The detainees claimed that in 2017, guards used excessive force when they peacefully protested conditions by sitting outside of their dorms in the day room. Video obtained by NPR shows guards using pepper spray on the group of men.

Last year, advocacy groups filed a class action lawsuit over what they claim is a lack of adequate mental and medical health care at the facility.

In April, a federal judge ordered ICE to consider releasing detainees who are medically vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19. ICE is appealing the order.

Guillen, the detainee who said he vomited in his cell after being exposed to pepper spray, told us the experience has exacerbated his anxiety.

"I got depression and it's hitting me very bad. I can't really sleep at night. I've had anxiety," he said. "I keep getting angry, and I just want to leave my dorm. I keep hitting the wall for some reason. They're treating us like dogs, in a way. We're not incarcerated, we're being detained."

WE LOVE TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS