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Violations at ICE facility in 2020 threatened the health and safety of detainees, watchdog report says

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Detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Arizona filed hundreds of grievances about mistreatment, including use-of-force incidents, according to a watchdog report released Thursday, which concluded that violations threatened the health, safety and rights of those at the facility.

During its inspection last year, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general found “serious concerns regarding detainee care and treatment.” For example, in one instance, a detainee who is a cancer patient ran out of leukemia medication after the medical staff did not order a refill on time.

Last April, detainees also held a peaceful protest, stemming from the center not providing sufficient personal protective equipment to avoid the spread of Covid-19, according to the report. The facility responded by deploying chemical agents from the ceiling and fired pepper spray from handheld devices, the watchdog report says.

Between August and November 2020, the DHS inspector general conducted an unannounced, remote inspection of La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, as well as viewed surveillance video from areas within the facility, and interviewed ICE personnel, officials at the center, and detainees. At the start of the inspection, the center housed 1,156 ICE detainees.

Last summer, the center, owned and operated by CoreCivic, came under scrutiny when lawyers disseminated a letter from detainees detailing dangerous conditions in custody as coronavirus spread. “We’re begging for your help because this is a life or death situation,” stated the letter, which was purportedly signed by 70 detainees held at the La Palma Correctional Center.

“Fundamentally, it’s time to start closing some of these facilities, starting with the ones with the most egregious track record,” Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, told CNN. “This report outlines the inability of people with chronic illnesses to obtain necessary medication to treat those illnesses. That’s inexcusable.”

Surveillance footage images included in the report show the pepper spray incident. In one image, detainees are sitting on the floor in an open area. Another image, from the same day, shows the center’s staff, outfitted in helmets and all-black gear, firing pepper spray and chemical agents at detainees.

“A detainee told us he suffered injuries from pepper balls fired by facility staff, but felt too intimidated to file a report about the incident through proper channels,” the report reads.

Six grievances were ultimately filed over the incidents. The facility denied or rejected them.

In 27 reported use-of-force incidents at the facility between February and August 24, 2020, 11 included facility staff using chemical agents “to gain detainee compliance,” according to the report.

The report also details grievances filed by detainees, including an instance of an officer cursing at a detainee, calling him a racial slur, threatening him with pepper spray, then hanging up his telephone call with family. While the center required staff responsible for detainee mistreatment to complete training on professionalism, they returned to their prior assignments.

The inspector general also addressed concerns relating to Covid-19 precautions. While officials took some measures to prevent spread, like serving meals in detainee housing areas and restricting visitation and services, they did not ensure detainees wore masks and were socially distanced, according to the report.

Some detainees said they didn’t receive any masks, others said they only received one. ICE guidance from September 2020, however, had said “cloth face coverings should be worn by detainees and staff to help slow the spread of COVID-19,” the report said.

There have been 767 Covid-19 cases at the facility, according to ICE data.

The medical unit was also “critically understaffed,” the inspector general found, which hindered the facility’s ability to provide care to detainees. In a random selection of sick call requests from February to August 24, 2020, detainees waited an average of 3.35 days to receive care, with some requests taking longer than 3 days for a response or treatment, according to the report.

“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 report says.

The inspector general’s recommendations include action to address use of force incidents and allegations of detainee mistreatment by staff, that the center provide appropriate facial coverings and social distancing, and ensure detainees in segregation are provided required services.

The list also includes refilling and administering detainees’ medication, addressing and logging grievances, and providing appropriate access to ICE deportation officers.

In its response to the report, ICE agreed with some, but not all of the recommendations. The agency said, for example, that the report didn’t identify whether use-of-force incidents violated guidelines, adding that staff responsible for mistreatment received “remedial action,” and said the center is in compliance with CDC guidelines relating to the coronavirus pandemic and increased inventory of personal protective equipment.

“ICE is also concerned that the OIG’s draft report omits necessary context in several instances, without which a reader may assume that violations of the standards had occurred, when in fact, none occurred,” the agency’s response, which is included in the report, reads, citing the understaffed medical unit and noting that the facility wasn’t at full capacity.

In a statement, Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic, said: “We agree with feedback provided by ICE that the OIG report has it wrong about LPCC in more ways than it has it right. We operate every day in a challenging environment that was made all the more difficult by a pandemic with which the entire world has and continues to struggle with. We always appreciate the feedback and accountability that our partners provide, and we strive every day to do better in our service to them and the people in our care.”

ICE agreed with recommendations relating to medical services.

This story has been updated with comment from CoreCivic.

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