Adelanto, Calif. – Nine Central American immigrants sat at a table in their dormitory at the troubled Adelanto Detention Center and asked an officer to deliver a list of their demands to higher-ups. The officer at the for-profit facility in the high desert, north of San Bernardino, refused and ordered them to return to their bunks for an inmate count. Instead, the men linked arms and refused to budge.
“We wanted to be heard,” said Josue Lemus Campos, 24, from El Salvador. He said he and his fellow protesters had been quiet and peaceful during their June protest. But when the men refused to move, the officer immediately called for reinforcements who rushed in armed with pepper spray. They began shouting orders in English, a language the men don’t fully understand. Minutes later, the guards doused the nine with pepper spray, aiming at their faces.
“We were crying and the guards were laughing,” said Omar Rivera Martinez, 37, also from El Salvador. “I felt like I was going to die. We were suffocating. They pulled us out, beating us, scratching us, throwing us against the wall.” His nose was broken, he said, and a tooth and gold dental crowns were knocked out. “They threw me against the wall four times,” he said. “The most terrible part was they put us in the shower.” He said he was the only one of the nine who refused to bathe in the scalding hot water, which intensified the pain of the pepper spray. The other detainees “were jumping and shouting,” he said. “They were afraid.”
Rivera Martinez said he visited the detention center’s clinic where a doctor refused to treat him. Lemus Campos said he saw a practitioner for a shoulder injury he said guards inflicted during the incident. Several weeks ago, he was told he needed X-rays, but as of mid-July, he hadn’t had them yet.
Lemus Campos said the men now face retaliation and fear for their safety inside the facility operated for Immigration and Customs Enforcement by the Geo Group, one of the two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States. Eight of the nine immigrants who launched the protest remain in custody. One has been deported.
All are asylum seekers who had hoped to fight their cases on the outside. But they say their bonds, between $15,000 and $35,000, are too high for people with no money and few connections in the United States. The steep cost of bail led the list of issues the men had hoped to raise with ICE officials, along with political asylum, better food, and clean water.
Following the pepper spraying incident, the men were placed in two-person disciplinary segregation cells for 10 days. Hussain Turk, an attorney who visited Rivera Martinez and Lemus Campos a week after the incident, described what he saw in a sworn declaration.
He said he saw at least 30 scratches on Rivera Martinez, who was brought to the meeting in handcuffs. “His nose is visibly fractured and off-set to the left side of his face by several millimeters,” Turk wrote in his statement. “He appeared frightened and in pain.” Turk said when he asked an officer why his client was handcuffed, the guard made “an exaggerated air-quote gesture” and said. “For inciting a group protest.” Turk wrote that he “perceived his tone and gesture to imply a skepticism regarding the underlying violation for which Rivera Martinez was being disciplined.” Turk was also concerned that he wasn’t permitted a private visit with Lemus Campos. The two men spoke by phone and were separated by a glass pane with a guard present on Lemus Campos’ side.
GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez declined to comment on the detainees’ allegations, and in an email referred questions on the incident to ICE.