B.J. splashed toilet water in his eyes. The immigrant man was doing so, he later told attorneys in a statement last fall, because he was trying to wash his eyes after officers at the Adams County Detention Center sprayed him with pepper spray.

He and seven other Cameroonian ICE detainees at the facility alleged that, in late September 2020, ICE officers took them to a medical facility and attempted to force them to sign deportation documents. When the men refused, they claimed, the agents took them to a dorm called Zulu.

The officers “strangled me almost to the point of death,” the Freedom for Immigrants advocacy organization and the Southern Poverty Law Center complaint cited B.J. saying more than a week after the alleged incident.

CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns the Adams facility and contracts with ICE, has denied the allegations of violence.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to shut down 39 ICE detention facilities—including the Adams County Detention Center east of Natchez.

‘Guilty of Nothing But the Search For A Safe Place’

“For years, immigration detention has been used to incarcerated individuals guilty of nothing but the search for a safe place to call home. Adams County is no exception,” ACLU of Mississippi SMART Justice Advocate Delana Tavakol said in a statement today. “Many people detained in Adams County are fleeing persecution. Many others were brought to the United States as children and have lived here for decades.

“Yet now they are subject to medical neglect, physical abuse, and the psychological torment of indefinite confinement. President Biden has already initiated an end to private prisons. On the campaign trail, he promised to do the same with private detention facilities. It’s time to see that promise fulfilled and Adams County shut down for good.”

Salomon Diego Alonso lies in bed while his small daughter kisses his cheek
Salomon Diego Alonso was separated from his daughter after U.S. immigration officials arrested him near Forest, Miss., during the Aug. 7 chicken-plant raids and housed him in a Louisiana ICE detention facility, where he became ill with COVID-19 in April 2020. Photo courtesy Salomon Diego Alonso family.

Biden signed an executive order in January that will phase out the U.S. Department of Justice’s use of contracts with private prisons, but it does not end all federal or state contracts with private prisons.

ICE has more than 200 detention facilities across the country. The ACLU identified four criteria for singling out 39 of them, including Adams: ones that the Government Accountability Office found “opened without adequate justification in violation of ICE’s own process for obtaining new detention space”; ones “in remote locations with compromised access to legal counsel and external medical care”; and ones with “documented patterns of inhuman treatment or conditions.”

The facilities it singled out each meet one or more of those criteria, the ACLU said. But it only identified 10 of the immigrant detention centers that it said meets all four—and the Adams County Detention Facility is one of them.

Four ICE detention facilities in Louisiana also meet those criteria, the ACLU said, including ones that have held detained immigrants from Mississippi, including some of the 680 immigrants whom federal agents swept up in the 2019 ICE raids on poultry plants.

CoreCivic: Allegations ‘Completely False’

“Detainees at Adams County recently filed civil rights complaints detailing a pattern of excessive force and physical abuse by ICE agents and facility staff, use of coercion to get Cameroonian detainees to sign travel documents for deportations, and torture,” the ACLU said in a letter today to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, a Biden appointee.

Secretary Mayorkas holds up his hand as he takes the oath of office with Vice President Kamala Harris swearing him in.
Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in the Vice President’s Ceremonial Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House. In an April 26, 2021 letter, the ACLU urged Mayorkas “to direct the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to conduct a review of serious allegations of abuse at (39) ICE detention facilities.” Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

CoreCivic officials denied the allegations from the October 2020 complaint in an interview with the Natchez Democrat last fall.

“The allegations contained in SPLC’s Oct. 7 letter are completely false,” the paper reported Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, saying.

“On Sept. 27, three of the detainees assaulted CoreCivic staff, and they were subdued. There were no injuries as a result, and no additional altercations. Each of the detainees was seen by medical personnel after the incident.”

‘I Almost Died’

B.J., the immigrant whose real name was withheld, claimed in his October 2020 statement that he signaled his distress as an officer allegedly strangled him.

“I kept telling him, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I almost died. I was coughing so much after, and my throat still hurts a lot. I can’t see well still from the pepper spray. As a result of the physical violence, they were able to forcibly obtain my fingerprint on the document,” the Freedom for Immigrants advocacy organization and the Southern Poverty Law Center cited him saying in the complaint more than a week after the alleged incident.

“I was hospitalized after the incident, but they didn’t treat me at all. I tried to wash my eyes with toilet water. They did not even allow me to use the sink to wash out my eyes.”

Secretary Mayorkas stands outside in El Paso with a Customs and Border agent
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, right, met with Customs and Border Protection agents and other immigration officials in El Paso, Texas, in March 2021. Photo courtesy Secretary Mayorkas

Another detainee, referred to in the October 2020 complaint only as “D.F.,” said allegedly in his statement that officers allegedly “were putting their feet on my neck” in the Zulu dorm after he refused to sign the papers. He alleged earlier incidents, too, including one the day after the U.S. Senate acquitted former President Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial in February 2020.

“The next day after President Trump was acquitted, an ICE officer pushed me into a wall and took my picture and said I would be deported,” D.F. said in the complaint. “I made a call to report his behavior with the DHS. I haven’t gotten a response to my report. … I came here for safety. I never knew about this inhuman treatment happening here in the USA. Please help me get out. I want out of here.”

Adams Facility Has 232 Active COVID-19 Cases

Since those allegations, COVID-19 has spread in the facility, the ACLU of Mississippi said in its statement earlier today.

“At least 323 detainees have contracted COVID-19; there is currently a COVID-19 outbreak of over 188 people at the facility,” the organization said.

Sarah Bechdel and Rose Falvey - Crirec
New Orleans residents Sarah Bechdel and Rose Falvey joined other immigrants rights supporters in Jackson in July 2019 to call on ICE to close its detention centers, including the Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchez, Miss. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

By this afternoon, though, ICE was reporting 232 “confirmed cases currently under isolation or monitoring” on its official website, bringing the total number of confirmed cases there since the pandemic arrived last year to 368.

Immigrants’ rights groups, attorneys and family members began warning that the facilities’ conditions risked outbreaks and death last year as the coronavirus first arrived in the state. One immigrant, Carlos Ramos Sanchez, filed a lawsuit last September claiming people in his section of a housing unit at the Adams County detention facility “were recklessly or intentionally exposed to COVID-19 virus.”

Since last year, CoreCivic has repeatedly said it was “working hard to protect our employees” and “those trusted to our care” with a “Coronavirus Medical Action Plan” including screening, social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting practices, and the use of PPE.

Biden Vowed to ‘End For-Profit Detention Centers’

During his campaign last year, Biden said Trump “has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants.” The Democratic candidate and future president proposed dozens of immigration reforms, saying he would “end for-profit detention centers.”

“No business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence,” his campaign website said.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris participate in a meeting on immigration Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in the State Dining Room of the White House. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

The administration has already implemented some reforms, including ending the practice of separating detained immigrant families. As a Democratic candidate, Biden harshly criticized Trump for the practice and for placing thousands of immigrant children, including infants, in crowded facilities for months on end.

“Under Trump, there have been horrifying scenes at the border of kids being kept in cages, tear-gassing asylum seekers, ripping children from their mothers’ arms — actions that subvert American values and erode our ability to lead on the global stage,” Biden wrote in a June 2019 op-ed in The Miami Herald.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].