Last week, the Department of Homeland Security‘s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report detailing dangerous conditions at La Palma Correctional Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Eloy, Ariz. From August to November 2020, OIG performed an unannounced inspection of the facility and found numerous violations of ICE detention standards that threatened the health of the more than 1,000 migrants who were detained in the facility.
The facility faced a major coronavirus outbreak in August, after ICE required La Palma officials to test everyone in detention for Covid-19. At the time, 211 migrants tested positive for coronavirus (a 17 percent test positivity rate). Prior to this mandate, officials had only been testing those with symptoms, despite the possibility of asymptomatic Covid-19 transmission. As of April 2021, nearly 900 Covid-19 cases have been reported at La Palma.
OIG interviewed detained individuals in the facility, many of whom alleged that ICE officials had created an environment of mistreatment and verbal abuse. In April 2020, after La Palma officials didn’t provide those in detention with personal protective equipment, detainees held peaceful protests. OIG found that La Palma “deployed chemical agents from the ceiling” and “fired pepper spray from handheld devices” in response.
Even after the protest, according to the OIG report, La Palma still failed to institute sufficient coronavirus precautions. Migrants did not have adequate access to personal protective equipment, with some telling OIG at the time that they had only received one mask, or none at all.
In a review of grievances filed by detained individuals, OIG noted multiple allegations that officers did not wear proper gloves when working in the housing units, resulting in those officers receiving counseling. The inspection also found that social distancing was not enforced, noticing many instances in which detained individuals gathered with one another or stood close together without wearing masks. The report stated, “The facility is at risk of another outbreak if LPCC does not ensure detainees wear facial coverings and practice social distancing.”
Finally, OIG found that La Palma did not meet standards for medical care. At the time of inspection, 21 of the 72 positions in the facility’s medical staff were vacant. OIG also analyzed a set of sick call requests from detained individuals, finding that the medical unit took an average of 3.35 days to provide care; national ICE standards require that all sick call requests be triaged within 24 hours.
The OIG offered eight recommendations to ICE. ICE did not concur with most of them, including recommendations that the agency ensure migrants have access to personal protective equipment like masks and that the agency review La Palma’s grievance policy and processes.
ICE’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis is not limited to just one facility. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency found that an ICE detention center in California was misusing a chemical disinfectant in a manner that could cause migrants to experience headaches, nausea, and burning eyes. The coronavirus has also continued to spread in detention facilities, with an outbreak in Batavia, N.Y., reported in February.
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