Hunger Strikers at COVID-Infected ICE Jail Were Pepper-Sprayed in Retaliation

As COVID-19 infections continue to rise behind bars, we go inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California to speak with detainee Anthony Alexandre, a longtime U.S. resident of Haitian descent, who describes conditions at the for-profit jail, run by private prison company CoreCivic, which has seen a mass outbreak of COVID-19, leading to at least 167 infections and one death. “Basically, CoreCivic is telling us they do not care about our health,” says Alexandre. “They do not care about anything else but their bottom line.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. The number of people jailed by ICE — that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement — who have tested positive for the coronavirus continues to rise, with more than 2,700 cases reported. Among the hardest hit by the pandemic is the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, where a mass outbreak of COVID-19 has infected at least 167 people and led to the death of 57-year-old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia last month. Immigrants detained there report dire conditions, lack of medical care, and the repeated use of pepper spray as retaliation.

Last week, we reached immigrant and activist Anthony Alexandre, who’s detained there. He spoke to us by phone. He’s a longtime resident of the United States, originally from Haiti. He has led two hunger strikes inside. I began by asking Anthony Alexandre to describe the conditions he and others are facing.

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Well, we are still in a unmitigated disaster, that it’s — the condition is still dire. The amount of detainees that’s been affected with the positive here in Otay Mesa is around 250 detainees. And they still haven’t done anything to mitigate the situation. The lack of healthcare is still — we have between three to nine medical staff on any time on the premises.

And we decided to hunger strike, because we were asking for basic dignity. And as a retaliation, they pepper-sprayed us. This was really hard for us. It was really hard to breathe. It was about 20 minutes, when they came in and asked us that they’re going to put us in a unit that had 15 — 15 detainees that had tested positive. We didn’t want to leave, because our body was so feeble because we were on a hunger strike. And they decided to come in and pepper-spray us. There was like people on the floor. It was like 20 minutes, 20 minutes of pain. Just like you could see Floyd is struggling for air, that’s how we were at this point.

And they came in, dragged us out of our cell and put us to another unit to go to a pod where Carlos Escobar were. So they took 15 detainees that was on M pod to put them on L pod, that they just finished pepper-spraying. It was unbelievable. That’s what made the situation so pernicious, because they took Carlos at that time. We saw him gasping for air when they were putting him on L pod, which was the pod that we just left, they just finished pepper-spraying. They waited three days. After watching Carlos Escobar struggling for air, they waiting for three days to take him to outside medical. I could not believe that. That was something that is very negligent.

And they decided after that to take us to a medical unit that had three other detainees that tested positive, where we’re sharing phone. They’re not properly cleaning it. The cell where we were was dirty, filthy, dirty with bloodstain on walls, spit on the floor. I had to clean the cell myself, when I was so weak. It was unbelievable, unbearable in this facility.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anthony, I wanted to ask you — back in April, the prisoners were told to sign contracts that were written only in English, in exchange for receiving face masks. And I would assume that the vast majority of the detainees there are of Mexican or Central American origin. Many of them don’t speak English. What was your — and then they were pepper-sprayed when some refused?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Yes. The reason why this occurred is because they did not give us proper PPE at all. The mask they gave us was actually one-day use only. And they give you that twice every what? Two months? And we had to cut off pieces of clothing to make personal masks with that. So, because those property belong to them, they pepper-sprayed us for cutting pieces of those clothing to put as mask.

And they want you to sign to get those little instant masks that I’m just discussing with you right now. And most of these detainees does not speak English. And you have to sign for it. I was the one that’s trying to translate what it was, to make sure that everybody got one in my unit so they could be able to protect themselves. That is accurate. So, yes, this is indicative to how they behave when you don’t — when they don’t like you to do something, they just pepper-sprayed you. That’s indicative to how they behave.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony, I wanted to play a video, a recording you made for the organization Otay Mesa Detention Resistance to play for California Governor Gavin Newsom during a meeting with his staff last month.

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: My name is Anthony Alexandre. I’m at Otay Mesa Detention Center. I’m a legal permanent resident for 30 years. I was born in Haiti. Governor, you have been a beacon of hope to all of us here. We believe that you are a pragmatic type of person, you will do the right thing. Governor Newsom, send the AG to investigate, or please tell us: What step are you going to take to save our lives?

AMY GOODMAN: So, Anthony Alexandre, do you know if the governor heard this? The conditions in the prison now, is it — are you still asked to sign a waiver, if you get a mask, if you want to get a mask, that would absolve CoreCivic of liability? This is a for-profit detention company, prison company, that runs Otay Mesa. Describe what CoreCivic is and whether the governor has responded.

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: The governor — 40 detainees on my unit, we signed a letter to Governor Newsom, and we sent it to their office. They sent back a letter saying that they wanted to speak to us, but we haven’t heard back from them ever since we had the first conversation.

Now, at Otay Mesa Detention Center, the last time they gave us a mask was at least a month and a half ago. These are cloth masks they give us, not those, you know, instant masks anymore. So they give us two masks. We have to wash them all the time.

And, you know, most of the detainees are not wearing any mask anymore, because we’re back in our unit. We try to keep it clean. They don’t allow us to go outside. They lock us up at least 18 hours a day now. And they’re giving us, three times a day fed bologna sandwiches.

So, basically, CoreCivic is telling us they do not care about our health. They do not care about anything else but their bottom line. So, this is not a place where you can be comfortable. They make it very difficult for you to breathe.

They tell us that we have to, if you don’t want to get infected — first of all, they say they’re not responsible for us if we get COVID-19. And they tell us that if you don’t want to test positive, you can sign for your deportation. So they’re basically using the COVID-19 to make us sign for our deportation.

This is not a place where you know they are doing — taking measures to make sure that our health is up to date. So, it’s very difficult to be relaxed in a place like this — stress everywhere, everybody’s getting sick, and you know you have to make sure that you wear a mask every day and gloves to be — I’m extremely vigilant because I suffer from an underlying condition. So, every time I go out of this 7-by-12 cell, I have to put a mask, wear gloves, to make sure that, you know, I don’t get sick, because I suffer from an underlying condition.

So, everybody in here, we’re all worried. Everybody thinks that, you know, if something happened to us, we might die. Some of these guys are signing letters to their family to say, you know, please — because after Escobar, we saw what had happened with Escobar, we all thought maybe we won’t make it, because some of these guys, this condition is so bad. Some of the — I remember seeing one guy slit his own throat. There was one other guy that swallowed a battery, you know, because they don’t want to go back to their country. And they don’t want to leave — they don’t want them to stay here in the U.S. So, this is very stressful being in here.

AMY GOODMAN: Final words, Anthony, as we wrap up here, speaking to us from inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center? What the external solidarity means to you? You have the Otay Mesa resistance movement outside. How do they get word inside? How do you get word out?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Well, this was difficult, because this is very important to hear. When I arrived here, I’ve been trying to vindicate my life, and ICE blocked me from vital information that would facilitate me to win my cases. They block numbers, like, for example, Otay Mesa Resistance. They block their numbers for us to call, because sometimes I would need information they’re doing that would help me out. They block those numbers. They’re making sure that we have — you watch specific shows they want to watch. We’re not allowed to speak to other detainees on the different units. It’s like having their foot on our necks.

They’re not allowing us to do the things that needs basic — basically, our right is violated. Our First Amendment right is violated. So, ACLU has filed them — filed a letter to let them know to cease and desist, because, you know, they’re not supposed to do that. So, basically, now they are allowing us to speak to the resistance again.

So, this is not United States of America. Once you arrive here, you will basically have no rights. That’s what they’re telling us. This is civil detention. It cannot be — we are both in a world — we are all in a world that none of us have lived before, so it cannot be business as usual, you know, and ICE cannot just ignore basic, basic dignity and have us being in here, where we could be on ankle monitors with our family. There’s no reason why they should keep us in here, unless profiting from our suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for Otay Mesa to be shut down, Anthony?

ANTHONY ALEXANDRE: Yes, because we all — we don’t have to be here. We all could be home with our family on ankle monitors to fight our cases on the outside. What’s the point of being in here, if it was just not for profit?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s immigrant and activist Anthony Alexandre, speaking to us from inside the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego, California, last week, one of the ICE jails that’s been hardest hit by the pandemic. The jail is owned by the private prison company CoreCivic. A mass outbreak there of COVID-19 has infected at least 167 people and led to the death of one man, 57-year-old Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, last month. This comes as the former acting director of ICE, John Sandweg, has joined doctors and human rights advocates and groups calling for the immediate release of people in ICE detention to stop the further spread of COVID-19.

In other immigration news, a federal appeals court has struck down President Trump’s near-total ban on asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

That does it for today’s show. If you’d like to sign up for our Daily Digest, you can text the word “democracynow” — one word — to 66866. That’s the word “democracynow” to 66866. Or you can go to our website at democracynow.org and sign up there. You can also go there for all of our broadcasts, the transcripts, the video, and the audio podcasts. And tell your friends about Democracy Now!, the daily, grassroots, global news hour.

Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras and María Taracena. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.