More Than 100 Immigrants on Hunger Strike at ICE Facility Allegedly Pepper-sprayed, Shot at With Rubber Bullets and Blocked From Contacting Families

More than 100 detained immigrants across two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in Louisana have been "subjected to excessive use of force and retaliation" over their participation in hunger strikes, a high-profile immigration advocacy group has claimed.

According to Freedom for Immigrants, as many as 115 immigrants who had been hunger-striking for more than five days at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center were subjected pepper-spraying and "shot at" with either "rubber" bullets or pellets shot by an air gun in an incident alleged to have unfolded on Saturday.

In addition to being subjected to "excessive use of force," the organization claimed that detainees were then "placed in solitary confinement and blocked from contacting their families or attorneys."

A photo published online by Freedom for Immigrants appears to show one alleged detainee with a large welt around their waist, which Freedom for Immigrants alleges was either caused by a rubber or air bullet.

In a phone interview with Newsweek, Freedom for Immigrants Southern regional coordinator Sofia Casini said the photo was shared with her organization by the mother-in-law of a current inmate who came to the U.S. from Cuba.

Casini said it was not clear from the inmate's description whether he was struck by a "rubber bullet," which can be fired from a standard firearm or riot gun, or a pellet, a projectile designed to be shot from an air gun.

In a statement to Newsweek, ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox said that most of the allegations of excessive use of force against detained immigrants were false, adding that people who spread false information about ICE do a disservice to the communities they claim to represent.

Cox did confirm, however, that pepper spray was deployed in an incident on Saturday in a decision that ICE maintains is consistent with agency protocol.

"On Friday evening, at the Pine Prairie facility, a group of ICE detainees refused to depart the outdoor recreation area as directed," he said. "Facility staff and ICE officers gave the detainees multiple opportunities to disperse and allow for the restoration of orderly operations. When the ICE detainees refused to comply, facility staff and ICE officers deployed pepper spray to disperse the group."

The ICE spokesperson maintained that no one was injured in the incident, despite the image shared by Freedom for Immigrants appearing to show at least one detainee with a visible injury.

Asked in a follow-up request whether he could comment directly on the photo shared by the organization, Cox said that he had "No way of verifying when and where that image was taken as it's not an ICE image."

He suggested that Newsweek contact GEO Group, the company that operates the facility, and said that they "could confirm for you that there are not 'rubber bullets' at the facility."

GEO Group spokesperson Pablo Paez told Newsweek that no rubber bullets, pellet or air guns, or similar devices were used in Saturday's incident.

"This is categorically false, and unfortunately, you are intentionally being provided with inaccurate information to push a specific political narrative," Paez said.

"A dangerous situation arose, which could have compromised the safety of both detainees and staff, and it was addressed in accordance with ICE protocol," the GEO Group spokesperson said.

Presented with the response to Freedom for Immigrants' allegations, Casini said she stood behind her organization's claims, asserting that the photos she has seen coming out of the detention facility tell a different story.

Further, she echoed the claims of other immigration groups in accusing ICE of not fully transparent when it comes to its handling of hunger strikes within its detention centers.

"In my experience with hunger strikes inside of detention, ICE has repeatedly been found to directly lie to congressional representatives, the public and attorneys about whether hunger strikes are happening," she said. "I don't consider ICE to be a credible source in the way that they have lied to the public, Congress and the media in the past and currently."

Casini said that Cox's assertion that no one was injured in Saturday's incident is also counter to what the photo demonstrates. The Freedom for Immigrants spokesperson further questioned Cox's response that he could not comment on whether the photo was taken at the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center because it was not an "ICE image."

"That does not seem like a credible response," she said.

The incident at the Pine Prairie processing center is alleged to have unfolded just a day after another pepper spray incident at Bossier Parish Medium Security Facility, also in Louisiana, which Cox said involved the local sheriff's office.

In a statement, Bill Davis of the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office told Newsweek that the incident on Friday, which was first reported by Mother Jones, unfolded around lunchtime after around 30 ICE detainees housed in a dormitory "began yelling and becoming disorderly, throwing their food trays at the door."

"Deputies gave them a verbal command to stop," he said. "They didn't and continued to be defiant."

"Concerned with the safety of the disorderly ICE detainees, other ICE detainees and inmates, as well as deputies and staff members in the correctional facility, deputies used the least amount of force needed to disperse and de-escalate the situation by deploying a short burst of [pepper spray] in the air towards the disorderly group," Davis said.

"This kept the disorder from becoming more violent or disruptive, and deputies and corrections officers were able to quickly maintain compliance," he said, adding that "ICE detainees who initiated the disturbance were isolated from the others to keep further disturbances from happening."

Davis said that detainees had begun hunger-striking late last week, with about 68 of the roughly 310 currently detained in the facility participating in the action. However, by Wednesday, he said there were only "about 10" people continuing the strike.

"Those on hunger strike are on an observation watch by deputies for the safety of the ICE detainees, and they are routinely evaluated by medical staff at the facility to ensure their health needs are met," he said.

Casini said that the fact that the two hunger strikes are taking place in Louisiana at the same time is no coincidence, with the Freedom for Immigrants spokesperson asserting that detained immigrants in the state are being faced with "arbitrary denial of parole and release."

"This is a peaceful protest and the men are using their bodies because they know their rights are being violated," she said.

"They understand that people around the country are being released and granted parole on exactly the same criteria," she said. Yet, she asserted, immigrants detained in Louisiana are being denied parole and release for prolonged periods.

In May, asylum seekers detained in a number of states, including Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee sued ICE in a class-action lawsuit seeking to block the agency from issuing blanket denials of parole and forcing asylum seekers to remain behind bars while their cases were being processed.

"Hundreds of asylum seekers are incarcerated for months on end, enduring abuses in confinement," the complaint stated, according to a past report from The Los Angeles Times.

"ICE's refusal to consider the release of these asylum seekers on a case-by-case basis violates federal law, costs taxpayers millions of dollars each month, and causes untold suffering to the men and women who seek legal protection inside the United States," it said.

At the time, ICE had been dramatically expanding its capacity for the detention of immigrants in Louisiana, setting up a string of contracts with local for-profit prisons and seeing hundreds of immigrants bused to the rural facilities.

In its press release, Freedom for Immigrants noted there have been several hunger strikes like the ones taking place in Louisiana reported at ICE facilities across the country over the past year.

In January, one group of detained asylum seekers, dubbed the "El Paso 9" fell under the national spotlight after ICE decided to force-feed them in response to a hunger strike, prompting members of Congress to demand an immediate halt to the practice.

Since May 2015, Freedom for Immigrants said it had documented at least 1,396 people going on hunger strike across 18 detention facilities.

This article has been updated with statements from ICE, GEO Group, the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office and Freedom for Immigrants.

Razor wire is seen on the Metropolitan Detention Center prison as mass arrests by federal immigration authorities, as ordered by the Trump administration, were supposed to begin in major cities across the nation on July 14, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Immigration advocacy group Freedom for Immigrants has alleged that detained immigrants at two facilities in Louisiana were pepper-sprayed over their participation in hunger strikes. David McNew/Getty

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