Otay Mesa Detention Center
The Otay Mesa Detention Center, which has seen the largest number of COVID-19 cases among the country’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, is run by CoreCivic, a private company. Photo via corecivic.com.

A coalition filed a complaint Thursday against Immigration Customs and Enforcement officials and their contractors on behalf of detainees at five California facilities, including the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

The eight detainees allegedly endured retaliation for speaking out against the conditions they faced while in custody.

The complaint alleges the First Amendment rights of the eight detainees have been violated, with punitive measures allegedly taken against those who air grievances or stage protests, hunger strikes and prayer vigils.

The complaint – filed by the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice and Centro Legal de La Raza – alleges that guards have shot pepper bullets at those who protest, placed them in solitary confinement and denied them access to food, medicine or legal counsel.

ICE representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs the Otay Mesa center, denied the allegations and suggested they were politically motivated..

“We deny the specious and sensationalized allegations contained in this complaint related to CoreCivic and our Otay Mesa Detention Center,” the company said. “These allegations are designed to exert political pressure rather than to serve as an objective description of the affirmative, proactive measures that OMDC has undertaken for over a year to address this unprecedented pandemic.”

The groups allege retaliation has been “pervasive and long-standing” at Otay Mesa, and that detainees “consistently disclose a fear of reporting instances of illegal conduct or substandard conditions because they will likely suffer harassment, solitary confinement, or worse from the facility’s employees.”

The complaint states that retaliatory measures were taken last year when detainees protested a lack of protective measures amid a major COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, which led to the death of one detainee.

The detainee who died, Carlos Escobar-Mejia, 57, as well as several others, were allegedly placed in solitary confinement after taking part in a hunger strike.

Other detainees were allegedly pepper sprayed for cutting up facility-provided clothing to fashion face masks after they were provided “only with single-use masks on an infrequent basis.”

The complaint also alleges CoreCivic employees blocked detainees from speaking with “outside advocates.”

Other facilities targeted in the complaint include the Yuba County Jail in Marysville, Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, Adelanto Detention Center in Adelanto and Golden State Annex in McFarland.

The complaint was filed with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which investigates complaints from the public regarding department policies, activities and actions.

Updated at 8:10 a.m., Friday, Aug. 27, 2021

City News Service contributed to this article.