The Women Asked ICE for Soap. They Got Pepper-Sprayed Instead.

The Women Asked ICE for Soap. They Got Pepper-Sprayed Instead.


Originally published by Mother Jones

On March 25, Jennifer Avalos Barrios, a 24-year-old from Guatemala with two young boys in California, made a panicked call to her sister from an immigration detention center in Jena, Louisiana. “Call my lawyer,” she said, “and tell her I’m suffocating.”

Marlene Seo, a 47-year-old who’s lived in the United States since she was 3, sent texts. “Alex,” she wrote to her daughter through an app, “they just sprayed pepper spray in here and everyone is practically dying from coughing we can’t breathe!!!” The next message was one word: “help!!!”

That morning, officials from GEO Group at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s LaSalle detention center had assured Avalos Barrios, Seo, and their dorm mates that they were safe from the new coronavirus. Things went awry, and soon 79 women found themselves trapped in a room filled with pepper spray. They were coughing, fainting, crying out for help. It was an hour or so before they got out, Avalos Barrios later told her lawyer, Mariel Villarreal.

I’ve spoken to Avalos Barrios, five dorm mates, a woman who watched things unfold from a neighboring dorm, and many of their loved ones. Most are using their real names, a courageous decision at a time when GEO Group is retaliating against people who speak to the media.

Most of the interviews were done over video calls, with the women sitting in front of a backdrop reminiscent of school photo days—the realities of detention behind them obscured by a cartoonish mountain. The $0.21-per-minute calls occasionally afforded more intimacy than the phone, but they had a tendency to leave faces frozen at unflattering angles. The app we used, called GettingOut, refers to detainees by an unintentionally accurate euphemism: residents.

Even in a pandemic, getting out of the LaSalle “ICE Processing Center” isn’t easy. Nearly 1,100 of the 1,335 beds there were full earlier this month. While ICE has released some people with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, it continues to hold many more in tight quarters that make social distancing impossible.

The new coronavirus has brought tensions in detention centers to new extremes, but what happened on March 25 was months of neglect in the making, and ghoulish in its ironies. This is the story—in the women’s own words—of how a presentation about a virus that attacks people’s lungs culminated in guards in gas masks pulling women out of a toxic room.

Aside from the interviews with Marlene Seo, her daughter, and a woman from a neighboring dorm, what appears below is translated from Spanish. ICE and GEO Group did not respond to requests for comment.

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