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Jail sued over pepper spray use during protest

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A lawsuit filed Friday alleges that staff at a detention facility in Estancia used unreasonable force by releasing pepper spray to subdue immigrant detainees engaged in a hunger strike demanding better COVID-19 protections in May 2020.

The suit alleges that staff at the Torrance County Detention Facility released pepper spray in a poorly ventilated space and blocked exits, which caused continued harm from the chemical for days after the “attack.”

A spokesman with CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based private prison company that operates the facility, said Friday that no detainees or staff were injured in the confrontation, which became necessary after detainees “became disruptive by refusing to comply with verbal directives.”

The suit was filed in 7th Judicial District Court in Torrance County by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center on behalf of nine of the detainees, all citizens of Cuba or Guatemala.

A video recording of the incident provided by the ACLU shows about 20 staff members wearing gas masks, helmets and shields confronting about 20 male detainees in a dormitory-type room.

About four minutes into the standoff, staff members discharged at least five canisters that sprayed a thick cloud of gas toward the detainees, who responded by running toward a back wall, many covering their faces with towels.

Nadia Cabrera-Mazzeo, an ACLU attorney, said Friday that three days before the May 14 incident, detainees began a hunger strike to protest a lack of basic protections from COVID-19, which was spreading through detention facilities in New Mexico.

CoreCivic staff “made them all huddle together and then they blocked the exits so that participants of the hunger strike couldn’t escape the room,” Cabrera-Mazzeo said.

The incident coincided with the first reported case of COVID-19 at the Estancia facility, Cabrera-Mazzeo said. Detention staff members were taking few precautions such as social distancing and use of personal protective equipment, she said.

A CoreCivic official responded Friday that CoreCivic “rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities” to mitigate COVID-19 infections at its detention facilities.

Detention staff released oleoresin capsicum, or OC pepper spray, after attempts “to de-escalate the situation were unsuccessful,” CoreCivic spokesman Ryan Gustin said in a written statement.

“After the deployment of OC, the detainees became compliant and staff was able to mitigate further risk of injury to both detainees and staff,” it said.

The suit asks for unspecified damages. It also seeks an injunction prohibiting the use of chemical agents at the facility. The suit was filed against CoreCivic and several staff members and the Torrance County Board of Commissioners, which, the suit alleges, is responsible for maintenance operations at the facility.

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