A group of immigrants in U.S. government custody clashed with officials at a Massachusetts detention facility late Friday, according to advocates and local authorities, who reported the latest episode of growing dissent and frustration among detainees amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The disturbance at the Bristol County House of Corrections in the town of Dartmouth is at least the ninth instance since President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus in which staff at detention facilities have used pepper spray on protesting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, according to statements from the agency to CBS News. It is also at least the tenth incident since then in which detention center personnel have responded to disturbances by immigrants.
The descriptions by the local sheriff and ICE of what unfolded on Friday were significantly different from those of advocates and family members of detainees. However, all accounts depicted a major escalation.
According to the Bristol County Sheriff's Office, Friday's incident started after "about 10 detainees" at one of the facilities in the complex reported having symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"The detainees refused to get tested for COVID-19, then when notified they were required to be tested because of reporting symptoms, rushed violently at Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson and corrections officers, barricaded themselves inside the facility, ripped washing machines and pipes off the wall, broke windows and trashed the entire unit," the office said in a statement.
The sheriff's office claimed that corrections officers, a K9 dog unit and a "special response team" were "attacked" by immigrant detainees upon entering a detention facility housing area. The immigrants were later restrained, the office added.
Three immigrants were transported to a hospital; "one for a pre-existing medical condition and another for a medical incident after being removed from the ICE wing. All three are expected to be fine," according to the sheriff's office.
Sheriff Hodgson, an ardent supporter of Mr. Trump and controversial figure in Massachusetts politics, said the disturbance was sparked after detainees refused to allow a medical team to conduct coronavirus tests. "Our medical team alerted me, and I advised the detainees that for their health and the health of their fellow detainees and our staff, they needed to be tested at the medical unit. The detainees refused to comply, became combatant and ultimately put the lives of themselves and many Bristol County officers at risk with their reckless actions," Hodgson said in a statement.
The sheriff's office, which confirmed to CBS News that pepper spray was used on Friday, said the disturbance caused $25,000 worth of damage. "Detainees have been moved to single cells in the special housing unit pending disciplinary action, COVID-19 testing and criminal charges," the office added in its statement.
On Saturday, ICE officials echoed the description offered by the Bristol County sheriff, saying detainees who were "refusing mandatory testing" caused "severe damage to jail property, breaking windows, washing machines and causing other property damage." The officials also said 25 immigrants in their custody came in contact with pepper spray during the altercation, and were evaluated by medical staff.
Local advocates, immigration lawyers and family members of detainees disputed this version of events.
The sister of a detainee inside the detention center said in a legal declaration prepared by an attorney that her brother called her at around 6:16 p.m. on Friday to tell her that guards had pepper sprayed immigrants who refused to sign papers which said "everything is okay with the conditions" at the facility.
"Officials started grabbing us and pushing us with force and then they started throwing pepper spray. The people on the inside could not breathe and many of us fainted. Our skin started to swell up as if we had an allergy," the detainee told his sister, according to the declaration. "Officials started breaking glass, so they could blame us for causing a disturbance. There were more people outside with dogs."
The detainee later told his sister to "help them" and that he had to hang up, according to the declaration. Benjamin Haldeman, the attorney who prepared the declaration, told CBS News the sister and her family requested anonymity.
During a phone call Saturday, the sister pleaded for help; her voice breaking at times. "We are people who come from the countryside, looking for a future for our families, we did not come to harm anyone. We live from our work," she told CBS News in Spanish. "We ask for help, to help us with our relatives who are there inside, who are being mistreated."
Sasha Wright, a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, said her fiancé, Conroy Lewis, a Jamaican immigrant held by ICE at the Bristol County House of Corrections, called her at around 5:45 p.m. on Friday to tell her that guards wanted to move him and other detainees to another facility for coronavirus testing.
At around 6:35 p.m., Wright said Lewis called again and told her an altercation had broken out. During a brief phone call, Lewis said windows were broken and pepper stray was used, according to Wright. "He was scared and did not know what to do."
Wright has not spoken to her fiancé since Friday evening. "I don't know what they're doing to them — and I'm worried right now," she told CBS News on Saturday.
The wife of another detainee at the facility, an immigrant from West Africa, described a similar incident. She requested anonymity to speak freely. According to the woman, her husband told her on Friday evening that the incident started after detainees were told they would be moved to another facility to be tested for coronavirus.
She said her husband and other immigrants were scared of being moved to an area where detainees may have been exposed to the virus. "It's not that he was refusing to be tested. It was just a matter of making sure that it was safe to move," the woman told CBS News.
"He told me he was pepper sprayed and that they had all these people there with dogs," she added.
On Saturday afternoon, the American Civil Liberties Union branch in Massachusetts called for an independent investigation of Friday's incident. "The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has an obligation to ensure basic human rights of people it holds in detention," Carol Rose, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "During this time of pandemic infection, the state should allow people to safely self-isolate by releasing them or arranging for home confinement."
The Boston-based group, Lawyers for Civil Rights, filed a lawsuit in late March against the Bristol County sheriff and ICE, demanding the release of detainees during the pandemic. So far, it has secured the release of 48 immigrants from the Bristol County House of Corrections, the group said Saturday.
At least 522 detainees in more than two dozen ICE detention centers across the country have tested positive for the highly contagious coronavirus, according to the agency's latest tally. They make up more than 48% of the 1,073 immigrants in ICE custody who have received testing.
Coronavirus infections inside ICE's sprawling system of private prisons and county jails have increased dramatically in the past two weeks, with the agency reporting 398 new cases since April 17. At least seven detention centers now have more than 20 cases each.
Kayman Whaley and Sydney Hammer contributed to this report.