On Monday morning, the roughly 80 men detained in one unit of the Catahoula Correctional Center had a simple request: They wanted to talk to someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. With their legal options exhausted and one COVID-19 case already confirmed at their Louisiana detention center, they wanted out as quickly as possible—even if that meant deportation. Instead of getting ICE to answer their questions, guards doused them with pepper spray.
ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox confirmed that 83 people “came in contact” with pepper spray at Catahoula on Monday. He also confirmed two pepper-spraying incidents on Friday involving 40 people detained at the Winn Correctional Center, another Louisiana immigration jail run by the same private prison company, LaSalle Corrections.
The incidents are part of a clear pattern that has emerged in the past month: People in ICE custody demand protection from the new coronavirus and end up getting pepper-sprayed instead. Sofia Casini, the southern regional coordinator for the advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants, said, “Across the nation we are documenting instances of ICE retaliating against people in immigrant prisons for protesting medical neglect, virus exposure, and denial of release.” A Mother Jones feature and podcast recently showed how one of those uses of force left 79 women trapped in a room filled with pepper spray at GEO Group’s Jena, Louisiana, detention center last month. As of Wednesday, 287 of the approximately 30,000 people in ICE custody had tested positive for COVID-19.
Catahoula is unusual in that it serves as a holding place for people who’ve exhausted their legal options and are awaiting deportation. Even absent a pandemic, that process can take months. Now it can take even longer as countries resist accepting deportation flights from the United States, a coronavirus hot spot with a record of deporting people who are infected.
In ICE’s version of what happened at Catahoula on Monday, detainees became confrontational, refused to obey orders, and threw things at detention center staff. Men who were in the dorm that day tell a much different story. (LaSalle Corrections directed questions to ICE.)
In calls from Catahoula this week, five men who witnessed the pepper spraying told me Monday’s incident began when they refused to get into their bunks so guards could count them off after breakfast. It was a form of protest. They hadn’t seen anyone from ICE in weeks and wanted someone from the agency to answer questions about their pending deportations.
A Guatemalan man, who requested anonymity, said the jail is completely unprepared to deal with COVID-19, noting that his unit didn’t have masks or disinfectant. “We don’t have any of that,” he said. “That’s what concerns us.” After agreeing to return to Guatemala, he has been waiting to be flown back since March 3. “What we want is to get out of here,” he said. “We don’t care where we go because coronavirus is going to get into our dorm any moment and we’ll all be infected.” But for now, Guatemala is refusing deportation flights after the United States deported dozens of Guatemalans with COVID-19.
Francis, a pseudonym for a West African asylum seeker, told me guards began threatening them with force after they refused to be counted. He recalled one saying, “Let us count, or we’re going to use our own way of counting and you may not like it.” After the threat, they still didn’t go back to their bunks, but Francis and others stressed that the protest remained peaceful. Nevertheless, guards began shooting them with pepper spray–filled paintballs and unleashing large cans of pepper spray, multiple men in the dorm said. “We didn’t do anything,” the Guatemalan man said. “We know we can’t assault anyone.”
The men remembered at least two people being violently subdued by guards. A Honduran man recalled guards busting open the forehead of a fellow detainee before lifting another into the air, throwing him to the ground, and dragging him away. Mark Langmar, who came to the United States from Hungary when he was three and has been detained at Catahoula for the past three months, said there was “blood everywhere” after the first man was hit in the head. (Unlike most people in ICE detention who don’t have criminal records, Langmar said he was sent to Catahoula after serving seven years of prison time for a range of offenses relating to drug and weapons charges.)
The men said that guards left them in the pepper-spray filled room rather than taking them outside. “We couldn’t breathe,” the Honduran man said. “We were suffocating.” Langmar explained that the guards were using large cans of pepper spray that emitted 8-to-10-foot jets of spray that left the room looking “like a smoke chamber.”
“Every time you breathe,” Langmar said, “you were just choking even more.” He described people hiding under bunks, praying, and running to the sinks to wash off the spray to protect themselves. The Honduran man said many vomited, including one who threw up blood. Francis went to the medical unit on Tuesday to deal with the lingering pain. He was told that it was a normal effect that would pass with time.
Like many Africans seeking asylum in the United States, Francis made it to the United States by trekking through the Darién Gap, an often fatal stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama. He has now been detained for 11 months. After losing his asylum case in November and choosing not to appeal, he was only able to sign his deportation paperwork in early March.
His mom has a heart problem, and he wants to be with her, not stuck in Catahoula, where he’s come to rely on sleeping pills. “All of this is affecting my health,” Francis said. “I’ve never been detained. Not for one day in my life.” He stressed that if he isn’t going to be released, ICE should send him home. “That’s all that we are asking.”