A corrections officer examines a unit in disarray at an ICE detention center in Bristol County, Massachusetts, on May 2, 2020.
CNN  — 

Inside the ICE detention wing, the signs of clashes lingered hours after violence erupted and pepper spray was fired.

Mattresses had been flung onto the floor. Detainees’ belongings were strewn across the room. A message that appeared to be scrawled in soap on a window simply said: “HELP US.”

Weeks later, officials and lawyers representing detainees at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in Bristol County, Massachusetts, are still painting a starkly different picture of what unfolded that day. But they agree on one thing: The May 1 brawl began with a dispute over coronavirus testing.

Multiple investigations into the incident are underway. And the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts filed a lawsuit this week calling for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the facility under an agreement with ICE, to release surveillance videos and other records. The sheriff’s office says it will do so once investigations are completed.

Immigrant rights advocates say regardless of what investigators uncover, the clashes earlier this month at this detention facility in Massachusetts exposed a dire situation that’s unfolding across the country and growing worse by the day.

Tensions over the coronavirus have been simmering in the sprawling network of US immigrant detention centers for months. But advocates say there are signs that fears of contagion are intensifying for the more than 26,000 detainees in ICE custody and the guards charged with protecting them – and that tensions are boiling over.

Advocacy groups say hunger strikes have been on the rise since concerns about Covid-19 surged. So have reports of incidents involving use of force, such as the pepper spray that officers fired at the Bristol County facility on May 1.

“It’s a huge increase. … This is a trend,” said Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, which is pushing to end immigrant detention in the United States and regularly tracks reports of hunger strikes and other incidents at ICE facilities as part of its advocacy efforts.

“This is what ICE detention is. And it’s not unique to any one facility. In so many different places, we’re seeing similar procedures and practices.”

How clashes over coronavirus testing erupted at one facility

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said officials had no choice but to deploy a K-9 unit and pepper spray that day.

A group of 25 detainees in one wing of the detention center became violent and trashed the unit, he said, after officials told 10 of them they had to report to the medical unit for coronavirus testing. At one point, Hodgson said detainees rushed toward him and one hit him with a chair.

“They destroyed the taxpayers’ facility. They were obviously poised. … What they did to this unit, you’re going to be shocked,” Hodgson told reporters before giving a tour of the damage the next day. His office said more than $25,000 in damage was done before officers quelled the violence.

Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson stands inside the sleeping area around rows of bunk beds in disarray at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center on May 2, 2020.

No officers were injured, according to officials, but three detainees were taken to a hospital.

ICE praised the sheriff’s office, saying officials had “responded rapidly and professionally to de-escalate a volatile situation, limiting injuries and further damage to the facility.”

The use of pepper spray was consistent with the agency’s protocols, ICE said, and allowed staff to restore order.

“During the incident, the detainees caused severe damage to jail property, breaking windows, washing machines and causing other property damage,” ICE said.

But lawyers representing detainees accuse the sheriff and his deputies of inciting the violence in retaliation for a pending class-action lawsuit that alleges overcrowding and inhumane conditions at the center.

“Our clients have all consistently and credibly indicated that the sheriff incited this incident, and that the sheriff violently responded to legitimate requests for Covid-19 testing, and to legitimate fear surrounding how or where they were going to be tested,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Detainees wanted to be tested for coronavirus, but didn’t want to be taken to the facility’s medical unit, located in another building, because they feared they’d run a further risk of infection, Espinoza-Madrigal said.

A spokesman for the sheriff’s office told CNN claims of retaliation are “absurd,” adding that the sheriff hadn’t touched a can of pepper spray in decades.

“I assure you no staff member is responsible for the incident. Our staff acted professionally and appropriately, and any independent investigation into the incident will find the same thing,” spokesman Jonathan Darling said. “It’s all a misinformation campaign by political groups who are doing all they can to promote their anti-ICE, pro-illegal immigrant, anti-law enforcement agenda.”

It’s not the only place where pepper spray has been deployed

Other recent incidents involving use of force have been reported at several facilities across the country, according to Freedom for Immigrants, an advocacy group that tracks conditions in ICE detention through reports from detainees that call its hotline.

“As people inside their custody raise legitimate concerns and demands over their health,” the organization said in a recent memo outlining reported conditions, “ICE and prison officials continue to respond with retaliation and abuse, meeting expressions of concern regarding the spread of COVID-19 inside detention with use of force.”

ICE says the agency has taken additional steps to safeguard detainees in response to the coronavirus pandemic and maintains that providing medical care to those in its custody is a top priority. The agency has said it released more than 900 detainees who it determined “might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of Covid-19” in recent months and continues to evaluate release on a case-by-case basis.

So far, more than 1,100 ICE detainees have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the latest statistics on the agency’s website.

Detainees lay on their bunks in their pod at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, on November 15, 2019.

Asked about reports of increasing incidents involving use of force such as pepper spray, an ICE spokeswoman said the agency had not compiled national statistics on such incidents.

“When detainees become confrontational, destructive or unsafe, and attempts to deescalate a situation are unsuccessful, the use of OC spray by detention center staff is authorized and consistent with agency protocols, to preserve order and protect the safety of everyone in detention,” spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in an emailed statement.

At the Stewart Detention Center in south Georgia, one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country, pepper spray was deployed at least twice last month.

The altercations, first reported by The Intercept and WNYC Studios’ The Takeaway, reportedly involved a SWAT-like team at the facility known as the Special Operations Response Team, or SORT.

In both instances, according to ICE, pepper spray was used because detainees had become “disruptive and confrontational with facility staff.”

“This calculated use of force was conducted consistent with agency protocol,” ICE said. “Medical staff evaluated all individuals who came in contact with the pepper spray; no detainee or staff injuries were reported.”

CoreCivic, the private prison company which operates the detention center, said its staff adhered to ICE’s standards regarding use of force.

Staff at Stewart quelled a protest on April 9 after detainees “blocked the pod door, covered the windows and refused to return to their beds,” CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said. On April 20, she said, “staff responded to a protest in a housing unit that was initiated by a group of detainees who became disruptive, creating hazards to block the door and refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by staff.”

The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, about 140 miles southwest of Atlanta. It's one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the US.

Erin Argueta sees a clear connection between the incidents and growing concerns over coronavirus.

“People are quarantined and afraid,” said Argueta, a lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. “It is a scary, intense situation for everyone involved. You have the people who are detained, who are asking for support and help and answers, and you have a staff who is also worried about being exposed to Covid-19. And it’s kind of a cauldron. It’s just a bad situation for everybody.”

Argueta said she heard from multiple clients at Stewart after pepper spray was deployed there on April 20. On that day, she said, the conflict started when detainees refused to eat food staff had prepared.

“There was this building frustration with how they were being treated,” she said. “They were told to go into lockdown. They kept insisting on their right to peacefully protest, and then that’s when SORT was called and came in full attack mode with pepper spray and guns … that shoot balls of pepper spray.”

Argueta argues the force used was excessive. And weeks later, she said the impact of the incidents is still being felt.

“People were really upset, and even people that weren’t pepper sprayed, people in other units have told me several times that they’re afraid,” she said. “They’re afraid to speak up. They’re afraid to say anything. Because they’re afraid of what happens to people who do.”

Detainees walk through the halls at the Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin, Georgia, on November 15, 2019.

Why advocacy groups say hunger strikes are becoming more common

Detainees are growing increasingly concerned about conditions as time passes, says Shah of the Detention Watch Network. And the recent death of a detainee with the coronavirus has further deepened fears.

Since March, the network says it has tracked at least 25 hunger strikes at facilities across the United States.

The same number of incidents that would normally unfold in a year, Shah said, have taken place over just a few months.

“Detention already is a life or death situation for most people. This has just exacerbated that,” said Shah. “They’re doing what they can. They’re using their bodies to protest because that’s the only option they have.”

Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor of medicine at New York University, says hunger strikers he has evaluated share a common sentiment: desperation.

“Individuals are not doing this to be disrespectful,” he said. “They’re doing this out of abject helplessness and fear.”

Asked about the hunger strikes Detention Watch Network had documented and reports that the number of hunger strikes were increasing, an ICE spokeswoman told CNN the agency hadn’t compiled national statistics on hunger strikes.

When hunger strikes occur, ICE says it closely monitors food and water intake of detainees and “explains the negative health effects of not eating,” per the agency’s standards.

“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference and does not retaliate in any way against peaceful hunger strikers,” said Bennett, the ICE spokeswoman.

She knew something was wrong when she heard her husband’s voice

Back in Bristol County, the sheriff’s spokesman says no additional charges against detainees have been filed, as investigations into the May incident are ongoing.

“The detainees who were involved have been moved out of the ICE facility and are now housed in single cells while we repair the damage they caused in the ICE building,” Darling said.

In a lawsuit filed this week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts alleges officials themselves have broken the law by refusing to release records and footage of what transpired.

The sheriff’s office says it followed multiple statutes when it denied the ACLU’s public records request.

“Materials related to open investigations are exempt from disclosure,” Darling said.

Fatima Chavez says she wants authorities to get to the bottom of what happened. Chavez, 29, says her husband was in the ICE wing when violence broke out. He called her in a panic that day, coughing as he rushed to recount what had happened over the phone.

“He told me they were using gas, and that some people had been beaten. He told me to get in touch with the lawyer. Then the call was cut off,” Chavez said. “I felt bad because I didn’t know if he had been hit, or why this was going on.”

"Help us" is seen written on a window at an ICE facility at the Bristol County Sheriff's correctional complex on May 2, 2020.

The next day, Chavez spoke out about her concerns at a news conference organized by the office of Rep. Joe Kennedy III, telling reporters and the Massachusetts congressman that more needed to be done to help immigration detainees. She also spoke to CNN this week, asking that her husband’s name not be used out of fear he’d face retaliation while detained.

She said for more than a week after the incident, she didn’t hear from her husband, a landscaper from El Salvador. When they finally spoke, he told her he’d been placed in isolation as punishment. She hasn’t heard from him since.

Every day, Chavez says she worries violence will erupt again at the detention center, or that her husband will get sick.

“We are all human beings. And the people detained there don’t deserve to be treated worse than animals,” she said.

She hopes officials will investigate to find out what happened that day in Bristol County, and look more closely at other immigrant detention facilities as well.

“Imagine what could be happening in other prisons,” she said, “that hasn’t even come to light.”