SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Border Report) — California Sen. Kamala Harris is asking the Department of Homeland Security to launch an investigation into the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

The detention center in South San Diego has the highest number of COVID-19 cases with 16 detainees and eight employees testing positive.

But that’s not the primary reason why Harris wants the detention center looked at. She is worried about alleged abuse of detainees, especially allegations that detained individuals were forced to sign liability waivers before receiving protective equipment such as facemasks.

“The horrifying conditions at Otay Mesa Detention Center are unacceptable,” Harris said. “We are in a moment of crisis that requires leaders to respond swiftly and humanely in the interest of public health. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has failed to take sufficient commonsense actions that would save lives. That needs to change—now.”

The Democratic senator from California is asking the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland security to look into a long list of complaints, and she wants the investigation launched within seven days.

Immigration detainee makes desperate call for help from inside facility

Among her concerns are whether staff has abused detainees and whether pepper spray was used on people housed in the facility.

“We request an immediate and thorough investigation into these allegations, related policies and procedures, and the sufficiency of those policies and procedures in protecting the health and safety of individuals in U.S. custody, particularly in light of the ongoing public health crisis,” Harris said.

Detained immigrants plead for masks, protection from virus

In an email to Border Report, CoreCivic, the company that operates the Otay Mesa Detention Center, denied any mistreatment of detainees at its facility and responded Harris’ claims as well as claims that detainees were pepper-sprayed.

In a section titled, “Regarding masks, no signed waiver will be required to receive a mask,” a CoreCivic spokesperson said, “We’ve been closely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC’s guidance on the use of masks has recently changed, and we’ve worked hard to quickly ensure that all of our staff and those in our care have access to masks consistent with this new guidance.”

CoreCivic said “the CDC makes it clear that the mask recommendation ‘complements but does not replace’ other critical steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. To make sure that anyone wearing a mask fully understands that they may not be preventative and that it’s important to continue measures like social distancing and proper hygiene recommendations, we will provide an educational handout. Again, no signed waiver will be required to receive a mask.”

CoreCivic also called the pepper-spray allegations “patently false.”

“On April 10, there was no use of force at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, nor were any chemical agents dispersed,” the statement said. “It is true that face masks were issued to every individual in our care at Otay Mesa. The temporary removal of three detainees from one of the pods was in direct response to their being disruptive during the issuance of the face masks. At no time was any force used to remove these individuals, and they were returned to the pod a short while later.”

CoreCivic said the incident was reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Additionally, in response to Harris’ statement, CoreCivic said the company works closely with its partners at ICE and ICE Health Services Corps (IHSC), which provides the health care at the facility, “to ensure the health and safety of everyone at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.”

CoreCivic also outlined the steps it put in place several weeks ago to update and expand its response to COVID-19 at the facility. That includes: limiting movement around the facility; placing detainees who have tested positive for the coronavirus under quarantine; serving meals in the housing pods rather than the dining facility; and providing masks to all staff and detainees in accordance with updated CDC recommendations.

CoreCivic Confirmed that eight of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but referred questions about detainees to ICE and IHSC.

Read CoreCivic’s statement to Border Report in its entirety.

Visit the homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.