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Whistleblower: ICE Denied Arizona Detainees Proper Medical and Psychiatric Care

A satellite view of ICE's Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.
A satellite view of ICE's Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.
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Two Arizona Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities grossly neglected the medical and mental health needs of immigrant detainees, leading to preventable injuries, drug withdrawals, and medication errors, an ICE whistleblower alleges in an explosive internal memo.

The memo also flags concerns that misdiagnosis by ICE officials could have contributed to an immigrant’s death in Arizona, and three other detainee deaths nationwide.

The document, first published on December 12 by BuzzFeed News, refers to three cases at an ICE facility in Eloy, Arizona, and three cases at an ICE facility in Florence, Arizona, among a total of 17 complaints in six states nationwide.

The whistleblower’s identity is unknown, but the individual’s concerns are laid out in a March 20 memo (below) that was sent to ICE leadership and signed by Cameron Quinn, the Department of Homeland Security’s Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

The searing complaints in the memo include one from ICE’s Eloy facility, where a psychiatrist allegedly neglected to treat a detainee’s worsening psychiatric symptoms despite warnings from the health department’s Medical Quality Management Unit.

The detainee’s psychosis got so bad he “lacerated his penis, requiring hospitalization and surgery,” the document says.

Another detainee with a serious mental illness was given the wrong medication for his auditory hallucinations and suicidal ideations, the memo said. Even though multiple health officials on-site agreed he should get an antipsychotic medication, he received an antidepressant.

At Florence Processing Center, three complaints describe medical staff’s failure to treat detainees suffering from opioid and benzodiazepine withdrawals. One detainee’s symptoms were so severe he got withdrawal seizures, requiring hospitalization. ICE staff failed to treat him for benzodiazepine withdrawal at intake, according to the whistleblower, even though the immigrant reported high levels of daily use upon his arrival.

The memo details four cases nationwide involving deaths, one of which occurred in Arizona. It suggests a detainee at ICE’s Eloy facility may have died due to misdiagnosis. Though ICE Health Service Corps initially attributed the immigrant’s death to coronary artery disease, the whistleblower called this “very misleading,” stating the more likely cause was either neuroleptic malignant syndrome or serotonin syndrome, both reactions to medication use.

Leadership had received concerns about the facility’s psychiatrist misdiagnosing detainees previously, the whistleblower said.

The memo describes the whistleblower as someone within IHSC who first submitted the complaints to Homeland Security’s inspector general in April 2018.

The individual’s allegations follow similar complaints raised by advocates, lawsuits, and other media reports detailing the immigration agency’s failure to provide adequate medical care to migrants within its custody. In the fiscal year 2019, nine people died in while in ICE’s care.

ICE deferred to the Department of Homeland Security for comments regarding OIG investigations, and said it “takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care.”

DHS has not yet responded to requests for comment. CoreCivic, the private company that runs the Eloy facility, also didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is investigating the allegations in the memo.

Democratic State Representative Athena Salman responded to the memo, telling Phoenix New Times she feels ICE's treatment of migrant detainees is "cruel and unusual."

"The Commander-in-Chief has pretty much given them the go-ahead to operate however they want to," she said. "I wouldn't even want animals to be treated like this, let alone human beings."

Laura St. John, legal director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which represents clients in ICE custody, said while the whistleblower’s complaints are distressing, they’re “entirely unsurprising” to her.

"Our clients have been telling us about this sort of thing for a very long time,” St. John said.

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