An investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lasting nearly seven months has found that private prison profiteer GEO Group violated the law by misusing a toxic pesticide that sickened immigrants detained at a private immigration prison in southern California and left them with nosebleeds, burning eyes, and breathing issues, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The EPA-registered pesticide, HDQ Neutral, had already been used at the Adelanto Detention Facility for nearly a decade, with applications only increasing amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. “This report confirms what those in detention have known for far too long—that GEO doesn’t care about the health and safety of immigrants,” the Shut Down Adelanto Coalition said in a statement from Earthjustice. 

While both staff and detained immigrants at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility were forced by GEO Group to administer the toxic pesticide as an apparent disinfectant, only one group received the bare minimum of protective equipment. It’s not difficult to figure out which one.

“Migrants who participated in the ‘volunteer’ work program were given HDQ Neutral in 32-ounce spray bottles and mop buckets, often without safety labels or instructions attached, without being required to wear the necessary protective equipment when handling the industrial pesticide,” Earthjustice said. “Only one pair of goggles was provided for all the detained workers in each unit.” The LA Times reports that EPA investigators found “[s]taffers were required to wear gloves and masks but not goggles.”

The facility’s warden, unsurprisingly, disputes those findings. During the early weeks of the pandemic last year, detained immigrants at another for-profit facility in the state were finally, finally offered face masks—but it came with a stipulation. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that staffers tried to force detainees into signing a document freeing private prison company CoreCivic from any liability. No signature, no mask.

Earthjustice said that because staffers and detained people at Adelanto were forced to apply the toxic pesticide “several times a day over a nine-year period,” GEO Group carried out potentially tens of thousands of violations. ”Ingredients found in HDQ Neutral have been linked to asthma, infertility, birth defects, and other respiratory and reproductive harms. One of the active ingredients in HDQ Neutral can even damage human DNA,” the organization said. “When asked by the EPA about the reports of adverse health effects on detained individuals or policies when individuals fall ill, GEO declined to answer.”

That’s a particularly disturbing part of the report. In that document, inspector Timothy Hyles asks Warden James Janecka, ”What is the policy that staff or management are directed to follow when detainees become ill?” The documents states, “Mr. Janecka declined to answer.” The toxic pesticide has not been used at Adelanto since September, when a federal judge ordered an immediate stop to its application at the facility.

“After receiving what appear to be valid complaints from detainees regarding the toxicity and noxiousness of HDQ Neutral, the Government and its contractor, the GEO Group, did absolutely nothing other than to continue the use of HDQ Neutral,” U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter said in his ruling according to the LA Times. “It is clear to the Court that the use of HDQ Neutral in Adelanto’s housing units was with a callous disregard for the safety of Adelanto’s detainees and in violation of the detainees’ constitutional right to reasonable safety.”

Adelanto has been notorious for years for reasons beyond the pandemic and the misuse of this toxic pesticide. In 2017, the prison saw three detainee deaths within the span of three months, one a death by suicide. Despite that, inspectors the following year reported finding nooses hanging in more than a dozen cells during a surprise visit. “According to the guard escorting us, the nooses are a daily issue and very widespread,” inspectors said. “When we asked two contract guards who oversaw the housing units why they did not remove the bed sheets, they echoed it was not a high priority.”

“[T]hey don’t even regard immigrants as human,” Shut Down Adelanto Coalition continued. “There is no reform possible when we are starting the conversation with an argument about the basic humanity of a group of people. This is disgusting and heart-breaking.” 

Earthjustice said that “[f]or years, the facility at Adelanto has faced intense pressure from local and national advocates over its inhumane detention practices, and particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, President Biden signed an Executive Order eliminating private prisons. However, this order does not apply to immigration detention facilities, which are under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Advocates have urged the president to expand his order to include ICE facilities, saying that “[i]n order to enact a more comprehensive agenda that truly prioritizes racial equity, President Biden must dismantle private prisons on all fronts, including ending private prisons partnerships and contracts held with ICE.”

“Despite a long-standing track record of neglect and abuse against immigrants held in ICE detention centers, private partnerships and prison contracts have abetted a cruel and unjust system that further punishes immigrants for speaking out against violence and mistreatment,” United We Dream National Campaigns Manager for Community Protection Cynthia Garcia said in January. “These abuses will only worsen the longer these contracts exist and the more unnecessary funding is funneled into the Department of Homeland Security.”

In a major step, the Biden administration did this month decline to renew a contract with GEO Group for New York City’s only private jail, Queens Daily Eagle reported. “It’s about time,” New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez tweeted. “The federal government should not be in business with private prisons.”

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