Staff at a privately-run Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Arizona failed to enforce COVID-19 mitigation protocols, verbally abused detainees, and used pepper spray to suppress a detainee protest, a new internal investigation found.
The report, which is dated March 30 and was produced by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General, found that staff at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, violated ICE detention standards that "threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees" during the COVID-19 pandemic. Investigators conducted an unannounced remote video inspection, reviewed surveillance footage, and interviewed staff, ICE officials, and detainees.
ICE, in a statement (below), said it "takes issue" with some of the findings.
During the early days of the pandemic, the facility, which is privately run by the company CoreCivic and houses undocumented immigrants detained by ICE through a contract, made headlines for having a severe COVID-19 outbreak.
For instance, staff failed to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing protocols, which the report states "may have contributed to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility." The facility's medical unit was also understaffed, resulting in delayed responses to detainee requests for medical attention and unfilled medication prescriptions. Some detainees who were kept in segregation were also not provided the required medical care or provided masks.
Investigators also confirmed that staff at the facility used chemical agents, like pepper spray, to suppress detainees who were protesting a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment to guard against the spread of COVID-19. Detainees filed six grievances regarding the incident, which occurred on April 13, 2020, and 182 of them signed a letter alleging that staff used "lengthy stays in segregation" to punish protesters. All the grievances were rejected, and officials with the facility justified the use of force by citing its own internal policies.
Between February 1 2020 and August 24, 2020, detainees filed 487 grievances alleging mistreatment by facility staff, some of which were substantiated. In one instance, an officer used profanity to ridicule a detainee, while another officer called a detainee a racial slur and threatened him with pepper spray before ending the detainee's telephone call with family members.
The report made eight recommendations, including ensuring the provision of masks to detainees and social distancing, mandating "remedial action" to address the use-of-force incidents and detainee mistreatment, as well as promptly providing prescription medication to detainees. But ICE agreed with only three of the eight recommendations.
A few hours after publication of this article, ICE provided a statement downplaying some of the findings and criticizing the inspector general's report:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Many practices initiated at La Palma, such as the 14-day quarantine period, resulted in reduced detainee-to-detainee exposure among the general population and this aspect was acknowledged in the OIG draft report. ICE 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.”
We've embedded a copy of the full report below: