by Melanie Pino-Elliott

Imagine going through life trying to manage schizophrenia, diabetes, thyroid issues, ulcers, and high blood pressure all at once. Then imagine losing your freedom because you’ve been wrongly accused of vandalism―even though you’re found not guilty on all charges―and you’re taken into custody and placed in a holding facility indefinitely. No pending charges or trial or anything. This is your life now.

Imagine that one day the staff starts wearing protective gear―face masks, gloves. You don’t  know why, but it’s kind of freaking everyone out. Then you learn about this COVID-19 virus that’s reached pandemic levels. And not only are you highly susceptible due to your medical conditions, but the place you’re being held is a tinderbox―there are nearly 2,000 people in the building, soap is in short supply, social distancing is not an option, and you aren’t given any PPE.

The guards say that we’re all going to pitch in to keep the place sanitized, and they instruct you to clean the floors in your dorm. But they don’t actually give you any cleansers, so all you can do is wipe them down with water and hope for the best.

Then imagine that the guards start regularly spraying toxic chemicals everywhere―sometimes at close range, sometimes directly at inmates. It’s burning your skin, stinging your eyes, and causing nosebleeds, nausea, and headaches for many others. Doesn’t matter. They keep on spraying.

Are you panicking yet?

This scenario is a reality for Jose Tapete, who has been detained at the Adelanto Detention Center in California for over two years. Originally from Mexico, Jose has lived in California since 1980, when he was 11 years old. All six of his children were born in the U.S.

ICE took notice of Jose when he was arrested and brought into court for a vandalism case. The judge dismissed all charges, ostensibly leaving Jose free to go. However, agents were waiting for him in the courthouse and immediately took him into custody.  

Jose reports that Adelanto staff put up CDC posters about COVID-19, but only in English. He was moved to a dorm for the medically compromised, where he was assigned the task of cleaning the floors, but not actually provided with cleaning supplies.

Others at Adelanto say that the staff have been spraying HDQ Neutral, a disinfectant known to cause severe skin burns and serious eye damage. The chemical is only supposed to be used outdoors or in well-ventilated areas while wearing full-body and face protection.

Jose corroborates this with the following statement:

Everyone here is suffering too, they are suffering terribly because where they have us here, especially here in the unit, [GEO] supposedly made it a medical [unit], but they are poisoning us with the spray they are spraying on us. Because there are only old people here, people who have chronic diseases, but they don’t care, they are spraying the [chemical spray] every 20 minutes.

This pandemic response is only the latest in a string of abuse and indignity Jose has endured while in detention. In January of 2019, he went off site for a surgery on his groin. According to a grievance report Jose filed with Adelanto, the staff did not follow the doctor’s post-op instructions and left Jose to bleed for 13 hours, ignoring him when he asked for help. ICE officials would not provide him with a change of clothes until he lowered his pants―in front of 15 other inmates, who signed the report as witnesses― to show that blood had soaked through his boxers and covered his legs.

This past February, a healthcare provider instructed Jose to drink four gallons of liquid in preparation for a medical exam the next day. Because no beds were available in the medical unit, Jose had to spend the night in solitary. Unable to receive clinical care, he soiled himself in his sleep. The officer who came to take him to his offsite clinic appointment in the morning refused to let him shower and change clothes. In a narrative shared with Freedom for Immigrants (FFI), Jose writes:

I had to wear the soiled clothes during the car ride, while in the van with other detainees. While at the outside clinic, I was embarrassed that the staff could smell me and see my stained pants...I feel humiliated and like I'm not even human.

Despite his vulnerable position, Jose has been vocal in defending both himself and his fellow immigrants from abuse. He has played a critical role in exposing some of the atrocities committed inside Adelanto and participated in hunger strikes to demand more humane treatment. He also reported a kitchen worker’s sexual assault against multiple victims to local law enforcement, resulting in that guard’s arrest.

Jose himself has been sexually assaulted by multiple people while in detention who have not faced legal repercussions. One of his assailants was recently promoted to head up the Adelanto facility.

Alyson Bancroft, an FFI volunteer who has become friends with Jose, believes that strength and courage is part of Jose’s innate character.

“He was born to speak out,” she says. He is committed to protecting people and wants the public to know what’s happening.

Jose’s role as an informant and an inspiration to other immigrants has made him dangerous to ICE, and he has been slated for deportation. I encourage you to defend Jose by signing this petition today to ask for his freedom.

You can also email LA Field Director David Marin using the following as a template:

Hello, my name is ____ and I’m writing to ask that you use your discretionary power to release Jose Tapete from the Adelanto Detention Center. Jose was diagnosed with schizophrenia, has several health problems that make him vulnerable to COVID-19, and is not getting the medical attention he needs. He has no family in Mexico. Deporting would be deadly.

Melanie Pino-Elliott has conducted research and communications in the fields of international affairs, public policy, and human rights. She holds an MS in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works in nonprofit development.