Indigenous activists arrested and held incommunicado following border wall protest

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Two O’odham women arrested at the border were taken to a private prison where they were denied access to the outside world.

TWO INDIGENOUS WOMEN who were arrested by federal agents while attempting to block border wall construction in southern Arizona last week say they were chained and held incommunicado by the government without access to a phone call or lawyer for nearly 24 hours.

Nellie Jo David and Amber Ortega visited the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument early Wednesday morning to pray at Quitobaquito Springs, a desert oasis that has become a flashpoint in the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to bulldoze its way through protected lands and stand up new sections of border wall. In order to mix concrete for the wall, government contractors have tapped into a desert aquifer that feeds into the springs, draining the only source of fresh water for miles around and slowly killing a sacred and ancient site of deep spiritual significance for the Tohono O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham people; David and Ortega are both Tohono O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham.

In an exclusive interview following their release from government custody, the two women described a baffling and terrifying ordeal in which they were bounced from one federal agency to another before being dropped at a private prison with no idea when they would be let out. “They didn’t read us any rights,” Ortega told The Intercept. “We both asked to speak to a lawyer. We were not given the opportunity to speak to a lawyer or make a phone call, and then we found out that it was a petty charge and that we shouldn’t have been arrested and detained to begin with, that we should have been given a citation and released.”

Complaints filed in federal court in Tucson on Thursday show that David and Ortega were given misdemeanor charges of violating a lawful order of a government officer and violating a closure order; the area where their confrontation took place was closed to the public in October to allow for wall construction. The arrests were carried out by U.S. Park Service law enforcement personnel with support from the Border Patrol. The women were processed at a nearby port of entry before being driven to a private detention center more than 130 miles away.

David and Ortega were taken to the Florence Correctional Center, a medium-security federal facility owned and operated by the private prison corporation CoreCivic, following their arrest Wednesday morning and remained there until Thursday evening. They described being strip searched twice during their time at the facility. Both women were chained at the feet and waists “well into the night,” David told The Intercept. “We heard that they did that only because the Border Patrol or the Park Service or whoever handed us over didn’t give them any information, but they just agreed to house us,” David said. She added that detention center officials told the women that they had no authority to release them, nor did they have any information about their charges.

“We kept hearing that they were full and that they didn’t have any place for us, and so I guess for that reason we were left waiting,” she said. It seemed that part of the problem stemmed from confusion over the two women’s genders. “They thought that we were men,” David said, adding that detention center officials at one point prepared to move the pair to a men’s section. “They were going to put us in the men’s facility, and then I asked to use the bathroom and then they were just kind of like, ‘Oh, oh, oh, she’s not a man.’”

Before processing, the two women spent much of the evening in a cold room with cage-like walls, waiting to be moved to their final location. Their shackles remained on while they waited, making it impossible to sleep. “There was a toilet, but it was really hard to use because we were handcuffed,” David said. “There was no soap available. There was no hand sanitizer available,” Ortega added — in a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year, the ACLU accused officials responsible for the Florence facility of failing to provide basic safeguards for people in its care in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. It wasn’t until the following morning, when they were moved to the cells that they had been waiting for, that the women said their shackles were removed and they were given access to basic hygienic items and allowed to use a cellphone.

“It was heartbreaking,” Ortega said. “Knowing that this is the process that migrants go through, that a lot of people go through.”

Ryan Gustin, a public affairs manager at CoreCivic, confirmed that David and Ortega were held at the Florence facility from 3:48 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon until 6:30 p.m. Thursday, and that their detention was requested by U.S. Park Police, the federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction on public lands. Gustin said the claims that the women were chained and lacked access to soap or hand sanitizer were “patently false,” and that every detainee at the facility receives sanitary items and bedding.

As for the chains, Gustin said the women were placed in “approved restraints” according to policy, and that they arrived in restraints without any documentation that would allow detention center officials to determine the level of threat that they posed. Gustin confirmed that David and Ortega made no phone calls during their intake but added that “the holding cells have phones that they could have used had they made a request to do so.”

David and Ortega maintain that it was absolutely untrue that they had standing access to phones in their cells. They said they made multiple specific requests to speak a lawyer from the moment of their arrests Wednesday morning — those conversations were not facilitated until the following day. David added that she was “shocked” to hear CoreCivic push back on the fact that they were kept in chains. “They put the chains around our bodies and secured our hands and our feet,” she said, adding that there was simply no other way to describe it. “We were tired,” David said. “We had been out there early in the morning in the heat, and we were in those chains, high-security chains, well into the night, and they would not let us sleep.”

Why David and Ortega were transferred to a federal facility over low-level misdemeanors in the first place remains unclear. Calls and emails to Organ Pipe’s public affairs office were not returned.

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