New Mexico detention center faces allegations of abuse as migrants protest for better treatment

Safety concerns persist for migrants detained in New Mexico prisons

Attorneys representing hundreds of asylum seekers detained in New Mexico are speaking out on what's happening at the Cibola County Correctional Center.

Attorneys representing hundreds of asylum seekers detained in New Mexico are speaking out on what’s happening at the Cibola County Correctional Center.

A new complaint filed by the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center claims employees there deployed pepper spray on a group of migrants staging a protest — and attorneys claim they weren’t the only detainees affected.

The reported attack happened in mid-November following an attempted protest for better treatment.

“The context for this incident is really implicating the entire immigration system,” said Sophia Genovese, managing attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. “People feel like they are starving, everyone is losing weight, there’s not enough access to clean water, which is just completely unacceptable. And they’re not receiving information about their cases, their deportation dates, and are just sitting and waiting for something to happen. And they’re getting agitated.”

According to the complaint, those agitations boiled over for a group of five migrants. When the other detainees couldn’t calm them down, the guards punished everyone.

“We’re told about 20-30 men, CoreCivic guards who are masked, entered the unit and dispersed pepper spray into the entire unit,” Genovese said.

Attorneys suggest those guards made sure everyone suffered.

“They also turned off the ventilation so men couldn’t retreat and put their faces in the vents, for example, to get fresh air, even if they weren’t involved in the disruptions,” Genovese said.

The complaint says most detainees suffered serious health consequences, including vomitting, sneezing blood, and breathing problems. Attorneys say they did not receive proper medical attention until three weeks later, around the same time the complaint was filed.

“They’re fearful that this is just performative, only in response to that complaint and won’t continue to keep up,” Genovese said.

A spokesperson with CoreCivic, which operates the facility, confirmed there was a protest. They say the agitated migrants barricaded doors, covered security cameras and set fires before guards eventually deployed OC spray — a gas derived from cayenne peppers.

They say no guards or detainees were injured, but attorneys noted CoreCivic used this same tactic before at a similar facility in Torrance County.

“This is a common practice by CoreCivic and when, that they’ve been held liable for the past,” Genovese said.

Security footage from 2020 shows guards deploying OC spray against a group of protestors who were reportedly staging a hunger strike to obtain better COVID-19 protections. They settled their lawsuit in August.

Attorneys say they reported the latest incident to the Department of Homeland Security, pushing for a more thorough investigation.

“I think it’s an open question about whether the proper use of force was engaged,” Genovese said. “We don’t know until there’s a proper investigation is done, until there’s video footage reviewed.”

CoreCivic has repeatedly denied allegations of mistreatment at both the Cibola and Torrance County facilities, but New Mexico’s congressional leaders aren’t buying it.

Sen. Martin Heinrich addressed the issues during a congressional hearing earlier this year, where Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas committed to looking into the facility.

Heinrich doubled down last week with another letter, saying, “I am growing exceedingly frustrated that my concerns have not been addressed.” He goes on to explain new reports of overflowing sewage and retaliation against migrants at the Torrance County facility.

CoreCivic denied reports of a sewage spill and many other issues detailed in Heinrich’s letter.

CoreCivic shared the following statement on the incident at the Cibola County Correctional Center:

On Saturday, November 18, at approximately 6:30 p.m. MDT, staff at the Cibola County Correctional Center responded to a group of detainees who became disruptive and confrontational. The group created safety hazards by barricading doors, covering security cameras and windows, destroying facility property, setting fires, and refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff. After attempts by facility staff to deescalate the situation were unsuccessful, oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as “OC” spray, was deployed under the barricaded doors. After the deployment of OC, staff were able to enter the housing unit, at which time the detainees became compliant, mitigating the risk of injury to both detainees and staff. Facility medical staff immediately evaluated all detainees involved in this incident, and those individuals were offered clean clothing and bed linens.  The incident resulted in no injuries to detainees or staff. CoreCivic leadership immediately notified our government partner, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), about this incident.

It’s important to note that CoreCivic does not in any way determine an individual’s deportation or release. That is at the sole discretion of our partners at ICE. CoreCivic provides those in our care three nutritious meals each day that members of staff also often eat. Additionally, CoreCivic takes great care to offer meals that support specialized diets and cultural preferences. Menus are reviewed and approved on a regular basis by a registered dietitian to ensure appropriate nutrition is provided. This menu review includes the common fare diet and religious diets, including food portions and nutritional content. All of these actions are in accordance with Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) requirements.

Detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center also have unfettered access to clean drinking water, which comes from the same municipal water source used by the community. 

CoreCivic shared the following in response to Sen. Heinrich’s letter:

The safety, health and well-being of the individuals entrusted to our care and our dedicated staff is our top priority. We continue to hear claims and allegations about the Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) that simply don’t reflect the quality of the services provided at the facility or the professionalism of our team. The reality is that we provide a safe, humane and appropriate environment for the individuals at TCDF and are constantly striving to deliver an even better standard of care. 

It’s worth noting that local and federal elected officials have made numerous unannounced inspections to the TCDF and have echoed these sentiments. Our public affairs counterparts at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also recently invited several media outlets to tour TCDF.

CoreCIvic also shared the following in regards to the plumbing at the Torrance County Detention Facility:

There were two incidents at TCDF involving plumbing on November 14, 2023.

  • The first plumbing incident involved one toilet in one individual unit. The issue was with the flush valve, which was quickly repaired. There was no sewage overflow. 
  • The second incident later that day involved a backup with one toilet in one unit where detainees had flushed shirts and rags, which were retrieved by the maintenance officer. Again, there was no raw sewage.
  • Cleaning the area was conducted by regularly hired pod porters and did not require the use of any personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • No detainee was placed in restrictive housing at any time in connection to either plumbing incident. (As a side note, there is no “solitary confinement” – in policy or in practice – at any of our facilities.)
  • There were no medical issues related to the plumbing issues, and there was no disruption of scheduled services such as meals.