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Eloy detention site 'threatened' migrants' health, used pepper spray during COVID mask protests

Federal watchdog found privately run ICE center 'threatened health, safety & rights' of detainees

A privately run ICE immigration detention site in Eloy, Ariz, "threatened the health, safety, and rights" of migrants, said a federal watchdog that found violations of standards, including an incident in which peacefully protesting detainees were pepper-sprayed last year.

The findings came after an unannounced inspection at the La Palma Correctional Center, north of Tucson.

In a 32-page report, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General's outlined allegations from detainees that officers at La Palma used excessive force and some verbally abused immigrants. The agency said that LPCC "did not enforce" ICE precautions including masks and social distancing, "which may have contributed to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility." The OIG also said that LPCC "did not meet standards for medical care, segregation, grievances, or detainee communication," and that the facility's medical unit was "critically" understaffed. 

La Palma Correctional Center is managed by CoreCivic under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

An ICE official called the report's claims about detention standards "unsubstantiated."

In a letter to the OIG following a release of a draft of the report, Stephen Roncone, the ICE's chief financial officer, wrote that his agency is "concerned that several findings in the report rely on uncorroborated allegations by detainees, such as when it appears that the audit team did not interview ICE or the contracting facility representatives." 

An ICE spokesperson said Thursday that the agency is "committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments," and the agency "takes issue with the accuracy of other findings in the draft report which relied on uncorroborated allegations and lack of appropriate context regarding medical staffing." 

As COVID-19 cases spread across the United States last year, advocates sounded the alarm, warning that detention facilities managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—including La Palma and the Eloy Detention Center—were "tinderboxes on the verge of explosion" for COVID-19 cases, and worked to have vulnerable immigrants paroled by the agency. 

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All told, there were at least 1,425 COVID-19 cases in Arizona's ICE detention facilities since last March, including 780 cases at LPCC—the most of any ICE facility in the U.S. Currently, there are 623 people currently in isolation or monitoring—including 87 at La Palma—out of a detained population of just over 14,000, according to ICE figures. 

OIG officials did not visit the facility, but rather conducted their inspection remotely from August 25 to November 11. "We conducted the inspection remotely, given the inherent risks associated with on-site inspections during the COVID-19 pandemic," they said. 

The OIG said that they initiated the inspection at Congress' direction, and "reviewed and analyzed concerns raised by immigrant rights groups and complaints to the DHS OIG Hotline."

In the report, the OIG said that as coronavirus cases accelerated in the spring of 2020, detainees decided to hold protests over a lack of protective equipment, including masks. According to the OIG, the facility should have issued two masks to each detainee, however, some people told the watchdogs that they didn't receive masks, while others only received one masks and were therefore "unable to clean it." The OIG also found that people in segregation had not received masks as LPCC reported it had provided. 

The lack of masks led to two protests, on April 11 and April 13, 2020. In response, La Palma guards "deployed chemical agents from the ceiling" and fired pepper spray toward the detainees. The OIG confirmed the incidents, writing that LPCC officers used force 27 times from February 1, 2020 and August 24, 2020, and in 11 of these incidents, the staff used chemical agents. 

One man said that he suffered injuries from pepper balls fired by the facility's staff, but "felt too intimidated to file a report about the incident through proper channels." 

"Nonetheless, detainees filed six grievances with the facility about these incidents," the OIG wrote. "The facility denied or rejected all six grievances. In response to two of the grievances, LPCC cited its policy allowing the use of non-lethal force to end such incidents." 

And, the facility did not enforce mask wearing. while ICE guidance from September 2020 specifies “cloth face coverings should be worn by detainees and staff to help slow the spread of COVID-19," video images showed detainees without masks in public areas, the OIG  said. "Staff told us detainees are required to wear masks outside housing areas, and although they encourage detainees to wear their masks and practice social distancing within housing areas, there are often times when detainees choose not to wear their masks or practice social distancing," the OIG said. 

In May 2020, immigrant advocacy groups filed an oversight complaint with watchdogs at Homeland Security, arguing there is a "systemic failure" by ICE to protect thousands of detained migrants from the novel coronavirus. The American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, through their joint initiative known as the Immigration Justice Campaign, filed a 65-page complaint with officials at the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Office of the Inspector General. 

The complaint included the firsthand accounts of 17 people in ICE custody at the time, who said that the agency and its private contractors have failed to provide hygiene supplies, personal protective equipment, and access to critical medical care. One detainee in Arizona said that people in the facility faced retaliation when they protested their conditions, facing rubber bullets, lockdowns and pepper spray for going on hunger strikes. 

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Those complaints were largely confirmed by the OIG's report. 

LPCC also improperly rejected complaints from immigrants, and did not respond "timely" to complaints. The OIG also found that immigrants in segregation were not consistently privided required care, including laundry services, no legal materials, no haircuts, limited recreation, and no access to the commissary for detainees who are in administrative segregation, and no masks in response to COVID-19

Even as those held at the facility worried about coronavirus, the facility was also chronically understaffed, and in a sample of sick-calls, detainees waited an average of 3.35 days to receive care. One man waited 22 days for treatment for body aches, and others waited nearly two weeks for treatment. 

At least 68 detainees filed medical grievances instead of sick call requests, the OIG said. "Staffing shortages may have contributed to this issue, including numerous vacancies on the nursing staff," they said. "Nonetheless, waiting days or weeks to provide medical care to detainees for acute sick call issues violates the standard for timely follow-up to detainee health needs. Delayed responses to complaints of symptoms of COVID-19 also risk the spread of the virus at the facility." 

The OIG said the facility's medical unit was understaffed, and 21 of its 72 positions for medical staff were vacant. Three medical coordinator positions were vacant for more than a year, and both psychologist positions were vacant, one for 176 days. "Although LPCC has advertised and attempted to fill the positions, the vacancies hinder the medical department’s ability to provide care to the detained population," the OIG said, adding that most of the detainees they interviewed complained about medical care at the facility, and the facility's responsiveness to medical requests. "The broad understaffing may have contributed to LPCC’s deficiencies in sick call response and prescription medication refills," the OIG said. 

In his letter, Roncone said that while the LPCC was understaffed, the staffing level was established for a detainee population of 2,340, but that the facility was operating with just 1,542 people. "Consequently, the average daily population during the audit was only approximately 65 percent of the population called for in the staffing plan." 

OIG also did not "recognize" efforts that LPCC made to manage the staffing levels. "Without this context, readers cannot fully appreciate LPCC's performance," he said. 

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LPCC staff firing pepper spray and chemical agents at detainees in an LPCC housing area on April 13, 2020.

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