The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) internal watchdog warned that an Arizona-based detention facility “threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees” in a scathing new report detailing lapses in medical care and responding to COVID-19.
The DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) review of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center also reviewed allegations from detainees who said they faced “an environment of mistreatment and verbal abuse” at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Ariz.
That included using pepper spray against detainees who staged a peaceful protest of the facility’s handling of the pandemic.
“During our unannounced inspection of LPCC, we identified violations of ICE detention standards that threatened the health, safety, and rights of detainees,” the report stated.
LPCC did not enforce ICE’s precautions including facial coverings and social distancing, which may have contributed to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. In addition, LPCC "did not meet standards for medical care, segregation,” or responding to detainee grievances, it added.
The facility is one of more than 200 ICE detention centers that hold those awaiting immigration court proceedings before they can be deported, a population that could range from those with even a limited criminal record to asylum seekers who recently arrived at the border.
Many correctional centers, like LPCC, are operated by private companies.
Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said the report sheds a light on issues that could be facing a number of facilities.
“The issues with ICE detention are systemic and have spanned many, many years,” he said, noting that his group has worked to document issues at other facilities.
The OIG visits of the facility took place during the waning days of the Trump administration in late 2020, though the numerous rebuttals of the OIG recommendations came from ICE staff working under the Biden administration.
The report found medical care in the facility to be lacking, even as the coronavirus spread through the facility.
A round of testing in August found 17 percent of detainees tested positive for COVID-19, while in other cases detainees had to wait an average of more than 3 days for a response to a sick call request and often faced delays in filling needed prescriptions.
“We found the LPCC medical unit was critically understaffed, with vacancies that lingered for several months. This may have contributed to deficiencies in responsiveness to detainee sick call requests and providing refills for essential medications. Without a fully staffed, responsive medical team, LPCC risks endangering the health and well-being of detainees entrusted to their care,” the report said.
Loweree is particularly concerned with private facilities as well as local government-run ones given federal funding, suggesting the Biden administration cancel or not renew its contracts with a number of facilities.
“When you’re balancing the interests of individuals, of people being held against their will and denied their liberty, up against private companies or local governments looking at their bottom line, what we find is the people that consistently lose out are those in detention,” he said.
In its responses, ICE officials disagreed with a number of the recommendations, claiming it already follows the internal guidelines the report claims it violates.
ICE said “reviews indicate an appropriate use of force” that did not violate ICE protocol, rebuffing the suggestion that they “ensure compliance and remedial action is taken to address LPCC’s use of force incidents and allegations of detainee mistreatment.”
The agency also said it began supplying masks and hand sanitizer to detainees in April of last year, but OIG said the agency failed to document the steps they were taking to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
CoreCivic, the company that runs LPCC, said that it agreed with ICE in its response to the report.
“We agree with feedback provided by ICE that the OIG report has it wrong about LPCC in more ways than it has it right,” Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic's director of public affairs said in a statement. “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.”