The protest, begun that morning, was entirely peaceful. Then the guard pulled the trigger.
It was Monday, June 22, and migrants, alarmed at the rapid spread of coronavirus within their Farmville, Virginia, detention center, refused a meal and declined to rise for the late-afternoon attendance count within their crowded dormitory, according to two detainees who directly experienced the frightening situation.
Then the detention-center authorities ordered the 80 or so migrants back to their bunks. Ten or more guards in body armor rushed in. “The first thing they did was fire a shot,” said one of the detainees, whom The Daily Beast will call Johnny.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) guard fired his weapon above the migrants’ heads, and didn’t hit anyone. “It was a distraction bullet, the guy with the gun said. But a distraction from what?” Johnny asked. ICE confirmed the discharge of a weapon, but disputed the guard fired any projectile.
Another detainee, whom The Daily Beast will call Jimmy, was in his bunk bed when the fracas began, ill with a fever and other symptoms in a facility where COVID-19 has broken out. He did not see the gun fire, but was roused by hearing the “really, really loud” shot.
As terrified people ran back to their bunks—“one guy was running from the shower,” Johnny said—guards in riot gear and carrying shields ordered Jimmy out of his bed. They ushered him and 11 others to a nearby gym, where the men were forced to lie face down. When he walked toward the guards, Jimmy said, the one guard’s gun remained drawn.
“I was afraid for my life at that moment,” Jimmy said.
Their accounts, backed by those of four attorneys for other detainees at the privately run Farmville Detention Center, portray a climate of fear within the center—fear of both the novel coronavirus and ICE violence against detainees who want treatment and information about a potentially life-threatening sickness.
Adina Appelbaum, who runs the immigration impact lab at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, was unaware of any previous instance, at least in the greater DC area, of ICE guards firing a weapon within a detention facility.
“In the past 10 years of CAIR Coalition defending the rights of immigrants who are detained, our organization has not heard of guns being pulled on people who are detained in this region,” Appelbaum said.
“This was a gross misuse of force that should not be used by enforcement officers in response to peaceful protests anywhere, including within detention facilities,” she continued.
ICE confirmed to The Daily Beast that a guard opened fire on June 22—but said there was no bullet in the gun.
“Before entering the dorm, a tactical response team officer deployed a noise distracting round, which does not fire a projectile and only creates a loud sound,” an ICE spokesperson told The Daily Beast—while also disputing that there was any “peaceful protest [or] hunger strike.”
However, in an earlier round of responses to The Daily Beast, ICE portrayed the shot as “OC spray,” or pepper spray. When pressed, the ICE said that the pepper spraying had happened in response to a different detainee protest days before, on Saturday, June 20.
On Monday, DCist reported, a man within Farmville described the earlier pepper spray incident as a circumstance where guards sprayed two detainees who were too sick to stand for attendance. “They try to use the pepper spray for no reason,” the man told DCist. “They fell down because they’re really sick… people are not joking with their life.”
Currently, ICE’s website lists 50 cases of coronavirus undergong isolation or monitoring among Farmville’s 412 detainees—up from 47 on June 22. ICE said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast that detainees who test positive for COVID-19 are separated out, with symptomatic detainees placed in the medical unit. ICE said Farmville plans “to begin testing the entire detainee population” early this week.
In April, as coronavirus began to spread inside Farmville, the Washington City Paper reported that Farmville, which has a history of health-care shortfalls, cracked down on a hunger strike inside the facility. CNN also recently reported on the recent spread of coronavirus within Farmville.
Jimmy, Johnny and the four attorneys described panic developing in the dorm as illness has spread. They estimate Dorm 1 to house 80 people, though built for 100, with social distancing effectively impossible. Early on Monday, June 21, a detainee passed out, agitating the dorm to the point where people refused to eat the lunchtime meal provided for them. They demanded to know why they were receiving what they considered insufficient medical treatment, including medications. Many followed up by refusing to stand for the 4:30pm count—many were unable to stand, something the protest tactic highlighted—which in turn agitated the guards.
Around 7 p.m., a man described as a shift commander entered the dorm and drew a crowd. He said he would talk to health officials, but warned the detainees to listen to the authorities. Some responded that they were merely asking for medicine. Both Jimmy and Johnny quoted the shift commander saying, “Have it your way” before abruptly leaving. Johnny said that detainees ate the provided dinner.
By 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m., an intercom sounded and instructed detainees in Dorm 1 to return to lie face down on their bunk. An estimated 10 to 15 guards entered through a back entrance and, the detainees said, put their shields up. One of them, standing behind the shield wall, fired what they described as a “long gun,” though none were sure precisely what sort of gun it was, alternatively describing it as a “shotgun” and a “prison gun.” They are, however, clear that the guard fired it once, over the heads of panicked detainees.
Johnny said the guard kept his weapon out and level as people ran to their bunks in panic. “This was a peaceful protest. It wasn’t violent,” he said. “We weren’t standing up for count, but he had the gun out from the beginning.”
Another attorney for a man held inside the Dorm 1—and who heard but did not see the gun firing—said her client feared for his life. “He has suffered some trauma in the past,” said the lawyer, Katie Fourmy of the CAIR Coalition. “He said, ‘I got scared from everything I’ve experienced. I heard the shot and was afraid they were going to kill me.’”
The guards ordered 12 detainees, including Jimmy and Johnny, to leave the dorm. Neither man understood what was special about their role in the protest. Johnny said the guards referred to the 12 as “leaders.” The guards took them to a nearby gym, forced them to lie on their stomachs, and ziptied their hands. The 12 men were taken to a processing unit, separated into two groups of six, and given mattresses and blankets. There they remained until Wednesday.
On Wednesday they were taken into protective custody—small cells with one bunk of two beds. Yet the guards placed three men per room. Both Jimmy and Johnny said one man would have to put his bedding on the floor, inescapably close to the toilet, where risk of infection would be high. Jimmy said guards told him the 12 men would be given a disciplinary infraction called a “299,” for disobedience.
The men said that within the “PC” cells, detainees are forced to wear chains during recreation, and even to shower. Jimmy said he was not given his proper medicine in PC, instead being issued Tylenol and unfamiliar pills.
“Right now, to be honest, I can’t believe we’re being treated as animals. They don’t even know what they’re doing and it’s scary,” said Jimmy. “I believe what they’re doing to the 12 of us right now is just to set up an example to scare people. Like I told you, if we acted up, I’d understand why we’d be here, but this is no reason at all.”
ICE’s version of events is irreconcilably different. According to the ICE spokesperson, instead of a protest, a “small group” of people in Dorm 1 attempted to “intimidate and coerce” other detainees into declining meals and participating in the count. Other detained people felt threatened, ICE said, and ICE escorted them out to a different dorm, something neither the detainees nor the attorneys said occurred.
The “small group” in Dorm 1 grew “confrontational,” ICE continued, and threatened both staff and other detainees with violence, another claim that is at odds with the detainees’ and attorneys’ account. ICE said that prompted the intervention of a “tactical response team” and the firing of the “noise-distracting round.” It called 10 of the detainees ultimately taken into PC the “main aggressors,” along with two others who “attempted to provoke another incident.” It made no mention of one of them being seriously ill.
As of Friday, the most recent date for which attorneys have sufficient visibility, 11 of the 12 men remained in protective custody. According to an attorney for one of the detainees, as of Monday, those remaining in PC still have not had their temperatures or blood pressure taken.
One lawyer for detainees within Farmville, Eileen Blessinger, said the center is one of “the best managed” immigrant-detention facilities she’s encountered.
“If detainees aren’t receiving COVID-19 testing there, what is happening to the detained immigrants at other facilities throughout the country?” Blessinger said.