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GEO Group sickened ICE detainees with hazardous chemicals for months, a lawsuit says

People walk outside the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Processing Center operated by GEO Group Inc. in Adelanto, Calif. The company is facing a lawsuit for the alleged use of hazardous chemicals in the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Richard Vogel
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AP
People walk outside the U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Processing Center operated by GEO Group Inc. in Adelanto, Calif. The company is facing a lawsuit for the alleged use of hazardous chemicals in the facility during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new lawsuit filed against one of the nation's largest for-profit prison operators, GEO Group Inc., alleges the company improperly used toxic chemicals to clean its detention centers, causing inmates to get sick.

The Social Justice Legal Foundation is representing seven currently and formerly incarcerated individuals of the immigration detention facility in Adelanto, Calif. Attorneys for the company claim that while Adelanto had used the chemical, HDQ Neutral, for at least 10 years, staff at the facility increased the spraying of the product at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.

The attorneys for SJLF allege that due to the detainees' months-long, near-constant exposure to this chemical from February 2020 to April 2021, they suffered symptoms like persistent cough, throat and nasal irritation, skin irritation, rashes and headaches.

Plaintiffs say they found blood in their mouths and saliva, suffered from debilitating headaches, felt dizzy and lightheaded, and now deal with long-term chronic health issues as a result of their exposure to the chemical.

A spokesman for GEO Group Inc. said the company strongly rejects the allegations "that GEO uses any harmful chemicals as cleaning products in our ICE Processing Centers."

The spokesman said, "In all our ICE Processing Centers, GEO uses cleaning products that are regulated by the EPA and are always used in accordance with the manufacturer's guidelines, as well as all applicable sanitation standards set by federal government's Performance-Based National Detention Standards."

But in 2021, the EPA issued a warning against GEO Group for the "use of a registered pesticide in a manner inconsistent with its labeling" after an inspection spurred by detainees' complaints about illness after exposure to HDQ Neutral.

What's allegedly happening in Adelanto is part of a pattern of conduct by GEO, Social Justice Legal Foundation Executive Director Shubhra Shivpuri told NPR.

GEO Group Inc. has faced several lawsuits by inmates and families of prisoners over the years due to alleged conditions at its prisons and immigration detention facilities. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is GEO's biggest source of customer revenue streams.

GEO Group Inc.'s Adelanto facility has also been subject to scathing criticism by federal government watchdogs. Reports have emerged that detainees' health and safety were at risk while at Adelanto and that solitary confinement was used for long periods of time in violation of ICE's own standards, among other problems. Despite these prior problems, ICE renewed and expanded a contract to keep the Adelanto facility open.

GEO Group's spokesman said allegations such as the ones presented by SJLF are part of "a long-standing, politically motived, and radical campaign to attack ICE's contractors, abolish ICE, and end federal immigration detention by proxy."

Detainees gather in a common area in 2019 at one of the housing units at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif.
Chris Carlson / AP
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AP
Detainees gather in a common area in 2019 at one of the housing units at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in Adelanto, Calif.

Staff at Adelanto sprayed HDQ Neutral "indiscriminately"

The Environmental Protection Agency considers HDQ Neutral corrosive and a chemical that can cause irreversible eye damage and skin burns. The manufacturer, Spartan Chemical, warns users not to inhale or ingest it, or get it on eyes, skin or clothing.

Staff began using HDQ Neutral "to a startling degree" in February 2020, according to the lawsuit.

The "chemical spraying was a near-constant and invasive presence at Adelanto. GEO staff sprayed HDQ Neutral every 15 to 30 minutes from vats strapped to their backs and from smaller spray bottles. GEO staff sprayed this chemical into the air and onto all surfaces, including food contact surfaces, telephones, rails, door handles, bathrooms, showers, and sinks," the lawsuit continues.

"GEO staff sprayed when people were eating, and the chemical mist would fall on their food. GEO staff sprayed at night, on or around the bunk beds and cells where people slept. And on at least one occasion, GEO staff sprayed individuals as a disciplinary measure," the complaint alleges.

GEO ignored repeated complaints from detainees of their symptoms from the sprays, "denying and misrepresenting the use and effects of the toxic chemical to people detained and regulators alike," the SJLF alleges.

The company's spokesman maintains the cleaning products used are safe "and widely used throughout the country in many different settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, youth centers, and colleges and universities."

The SJLF wants the lawsuit to be certified to become a class action so that other individuals detained at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center who are believed to have been harmed by the use of the chemical can receive damages, medical expenses, and attorneys fees, among other awards.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz