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Arizona migrant detention center officers verbally abused detainees, used excessive force and chemical agents, report alleges

Officers at an Eloy ICE detention facility used excessive force, verbally abused migrants and neglected their medical needs, according to a watchdog report.

ELOY, Ariz. — Officers at an Eloy immigration detention facility used excessive force, verbally abused migrants, and neglected their medical needs, according to a new federal watchdog report released on Thursday.

During an unannounced inspection at La Palma Correctional Center (LPCC) between August and November 2020, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general found serious violations that threatened the health, safety, and rights of migrants at the peak of the pandemic.

One year ago today the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed at LPCC, now it has the highest total of infections at ICE detention facilities nationwide with 767 confirmed cases thus far according to the agency’s data.

The inspector’s report lays out issues that may have made the conditions at this facility worse, leading to more than 1,300 grievances filed by immigrants at the center alleging mistreatment and excessive force.

COVID-19 response, excessive force, and verbal abuse

After viewing surveillance video and interviewing ICE personnel, officials at the center, and detainees, investigators “identified serious concerns regarding detainee care and treatment,” the report says.

In April, the report details a peaceful protest detainees held after they said the center was not providing personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

“A letter signed by 182 LPCC detainees indicates the facility used pepper spray, pepper balls, and chemical agents, and punished protesting detainees with lengthy stays in segregation,” the document sites.

Images of the protest published in the report showed facility staff using instruments against detainees, “staff deployed chemical agents from the ceiling” and “fired pepper spray from handheld devices.”

Investigators say LPCC did not enforce ICE’s precautions including use of facial coverings and social distancing, “which may have contributed to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility” but said officials took some measures to prevent the spread, such as serving meals in detainee housing areas and restricting visitation.

In addition to the alleged physical abuse, immigrants also depicted an “environment of mistreatment and verbal abuse.”

The report found that an officer used profane and abusive language to ridicule a detainee, while another cursed and called a migrant a racial slur, threatened him with pepper spray, and hung up his telephone call with family.

Critically understaffed medical unit

In a random selection of 100 sick calls from February to August, the report also found that the center's medical unit was “critically understaffed” and detainees waited an average of 3.35 days to receive care, with some requests taking longer than 3 days for a response or treatment.

The report found that LPCC neglected to appropriately handle chronic care medication refills. Citing one detainee, who is a cancer patient, ran out of leukemia medication after the medical staff did not order a refill on time.

Investigators noted that the medical unit had “vacancies that lingered for several months” risking “endangering the health and well-being of detainees entrusted to their care.”

Immigrants who were in segregation were denied access to clean bedding and clothing, no legal materials, haircuts, access to the commissary or masks—required services for all detainees.

Concerning alarms raised months before

The alleged violations in the report come months after 12 News first reported about detainee concerns of their own health and safety, and risks of exposure to COVID-19 last June.

In a letter, one of the detainees told his attorney Juliana Manzanarez the facility didn’t have a COVID-era professional cleaning at La Palma.

“I’m not surprised at the results of this report,” Manzanarez said after reading the OIG’s findings. “I really wish I was.”

Manzanarez, who represented several immigrants heled in Eloy, said “it was a huge mess trying to get a hold of our clients” during the peaks of the pandemic, especially when “trying to make sure they were safe,” she said.

“Some of the things that were listed in the report are not new and unfortunately people that are in detention have to deal with that,” the attorney added.

ICE disagreed with most of the findings

The inspector general offered eight recommendations to its findings, which included for the detention facility to take action in addressing use of force incidents and allegations of detainee mistreatment by staff, provide appropriate facial coverings and social distancing, and ensure migrants in segregation are provided required services.

The list also included staff refill and administered detainees’ medication, document, review and address grievances, and ensure detainees have access to ICE deportation officers.

In response to the report, ICE said it has “significant concerns about the accuracy of the findings” adding that “the report rely on uncorroborated allegations by detainees” and that the “audit team did not interview ICE or the contracting facility representatives regarding two use of force incidents.”

ICE also said the report “omits necessary context in several instances” specifically talking about the medical staff being understaffed. The agency noted the population the OIG’s office was using was for 2,340 detainees, but at the time of the audit the average was 1,542.

La Palma is owned and operated by CoreCivic. A spokesperson for the company told 12 News it agrees with ICE, saying the 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,” spokesman Ryan Gustin said in a statement. “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.”

The inspectors office said that in a January 2021 follow-up, ICE provided facility corrective action plans, which showed compliance with the medical oversight of segregation.

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