EPA says private prison company poisoned immigrants at ICE facility for a decade
By Amy Lieu
'When I blow my nose, blood comes out,' one immigrant reported.
Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency have found that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, operated by the private prison company GEO Group, has been poisoning detained immigrants for nearly a decade.
The EPA issued a final report on Monday, following a seven month long investigation, that revealed the Adelanto Detention Facility in California had misused the toxic pesticide HDQ Neutral without adequate ventilation, as a coronavirus disinfectant. In a notice of warning to the GEO Group, the EPA cited multiple violations over a nine-year period.
One of the country's largest private prison corporations, GEO Group, a major donor to Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, runs 118 facilities worldwide, with 58 "secure" facilities in the United States along. It also runs multiple ICE processing and detention centers, including Adelanto, which has faced allegations of abuse and mismanagement in the past.
The EPA's findings were flagged on Monday by Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit that is part of the Shut Down Adelanto Coalition calling for the facility to cease operations.
"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 coalition said in a statement. "But more than that, they don't even regard immigrants as human. 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," they added.
According to an Earthjustice fact sheet, exposure to HDQ Neutral has been linked to a number of adverse health effects, including infertility, birth defects, asthma, and other respiratory and reproductive harm. The group noted that detained immigrants had reported HDQ Neutral was being sprayed every 15 to 30 minutes a the Adelanto facility, which can house up to 2,000 immigrants total.
Further, GEO Group was not properly diluting HDQ Neutral, according to the EPA report, which exposed detained immigrants to double the concentration permitted on the label.
GEO Group responded to the EPA inspector's concerns by claiming the label allowed a higher concentration of HDQ Neutral for "animal premise disinfectant or animal virucidal uses," but declined to answer the EPA's questions about harmful health effects, according to Earthjustice.
In a statement to the American Independent Foundation, a GEO Group spokesperson claimed HDQ Neutral had been used at the Adelanto facility for nearly 10 years, in accordance with the manufacturer's guidelines.
"During this time, there was no indication of confirmed medical claims associated with the use of HDQ Neutral," they said. "HDQ Neutral is also widely used in hospitals, nursing homes, youth centers, and colleges and universities. At the present time, a product other than HDQ is being utilized at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center."
ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
In May 2020, immigrant advocacy groups Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice and Freedom for Immigrants filed a complaint against Adelanto alleging that HDQ Neutral was being used more than 50 times a day. The organizations cited first-person encounters with the disinfectant.
"I started bleeding from my nose after being in contact with a strong chemical they are using. I am still bleeding, more than five hours later," one detained immigrant reported. "...The staff had placed advisories on the walls, but it did not mention any safety risks or to wait a period of time before using the bathrooms."
Other detained immigrants were reported as saying, "The disinfection spray that the facility is using is hurting us," and "When I blow my nose, blood comes out."
There was no fresh air to breathe in and the spray was contaminating their food, they claimed.
In response to that complaint, ICE said in an email statement to LAist, "Disinfectant formulations used at Adelanto are compliant with detention standards, registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and used according to manufacture instruction for routine cleaning and maintenance of the facility. Any assertion or claim to the contrary is false."
ICE added that it was "committed to maintaining the highest facility standards of cleanliness and sanitation, safe work practices, and control of hazardous substances and equipment."
In September 2020, a federal judge found the complaint valid and ordered the private prison corporation to halt the use of HDQ Neutral.
The Detention Watch Network, a coalition pushing to abolish immigration detention, noted that GEO's Adelanto facility has had a long history of abuse and mismanagement.
Javier Hernandez of Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice called Adelanto the deadliest detention center of 2017 after three detained immigrants died at the facility that year.
In 2016, the Detention Watch Network, along with the ACLU and National Immigrant Justice Center, released a report titled "Fatal Neglect," which examined what it said were egregious violations of medical care standards at some of the ICE facilities — Adelanto included — where detained immigrants had died.
GEO Group, meanwhile, has maintained that its ICE facilities are safe and well-kept.
Since 2017, GEO has held $471 million-worth of ICE contracts, which makes it the agency's largest vendor, Prison Legal News noted in 2020.