Refugees Say Private Prison Guards Savaged Them

(CN) — Eight refugees from Central America sued the GEO Group, claiming its immigration prison in Adelanto, Calif., the “deadliest immigration center in the country,” subjected them to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses, including pepper-spray attacks, assault and battery, intentional scalding, and denial of access to counsel.

The detainees and former detainees also sued the City of Adelanto in Riverside Federal Court, claiming that GEO Group’s contract gives the city the right to inspect the prison, though it refuses to do so.

The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have increasingly turned to private, profit-seeking prisons to detain thousands refugees and asylum-seekers for a variety of reasons, including lower costs of labor and benefits, and simpler procedures to shut them down, temporarily or permanently.

Civil rights advocates claim the reasons include greater difficulty of access for the public and legal workers, private corporations’ greater immunity from freedom of information requests, and political donations from profit-seeking prisons, including GEO Group fka Wackenhut, and its main competitor, CoreCivic fka Corrections Corporation of America.

The claims of Omar Rivera, an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, are similar to those of his seven co-plaintiffs: “On June 12, 2017, defendants brutally attacked Mr. Rivera Martinez and violated his rights under state and federal law. GEO guards slammed Mr. Rivera Martinez’s face against a wall and knocked out his dental crown and tooth, as well as a 14-tooth gold mouthpiece that lined his bottom row of teeth. The guards also broke Mr. Rivera Martinez’s nose. After the attack he was left with a missing tooth, 30 separate scratches on his body, ranging in length from one to several inches, severe bruises, and a visibly fractured nose. Five months after the attack, a doctor finally evaluated Mr. Rivera Martinez and concluded that he must undergo surgery for his severely fractured nose. As of the filing of this complaint, Mr. Rivera Martinez has not been provided this necessary surgery.”

All eight plaintiffs say the June 12, 2017 assaults came after they began a hunger strike to protest their conditions of detention, which include being issued underwear that is “dirty and unwashed, having previously been worn by other detainees … foul, nearly inedible meals,” lack of “clean, safe drinking water,” and interference with contact with their attorneys.

All eight say guards pepper-sprayed and assaulted them, then placed them in solitary confinement for 10 days.

After releasing him from solitary, Rivera says, GEO Group “placed him in a red, high-custody uniform and sent him to a high-security ward that houses members of the very gangs that murdered his family members and caused him to flee his home country.”

Many plaintiffs say their punishments included being forced under scalding hot showers and denial of obviously needed medical attention.

The detention center was not available for comment before work hours Wednesday.

GEO Group headquarters in Florida said it does not comment by telephone, and did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

One plaintiff, an asylum-seeker, says he was an investigative journalist in El Salvador, “who exposed the connections between his local government, the police, and the violent MS-13 gang. As a result of his work, he immediately received death threats and was forced to flee El Salvador.”

President Trump made news recently when he called members of the MS-13 gang “animals.”

One of the plaintiffs says he has been granted political asylum.

The sixth paragraph of the 26-page lawsuit summarizes the complaints: “

Although Adelanto is a government facility for political asylum seekers and other immigrant detainees, and its inhabitants are overwhelmingly law-abiding foreign nationals seeking safety and refuge, its conditions mirror those of this country’s most abusive prisons. It has gained notoriety as the ‘deadliest immigration detention center in the country’ and it has been the subject of congressional, state and general inquiries. Human Rights Watch has documented all manner of abuses there. In the first months of 2017 alone, several foreign nationals detained at Adelanto committed suicide as a result of the deplorable conditions they were subjected to at the facility.”

The plaintiffs seek damages for constitutional violations, assault and battery, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, retaliation, excessive force, due process violations, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, and denial of medical care.

Their lead attorneys, Rachel Steinback of Los Angeles and Carol Sobel of Santa Monica, could not be reached for comment before work hours Wednesday.

Also sued is GEO Lieutenant Duran (first name unknown), in her official capacity.

Private prisons use military-style ranks for their officers.

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