Office of Inspector General investigators who reviewed a private facility housing Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees said they found health and safety violations including inadequate pandemic control measures, slow medical care, and complaints of an abusive environment.
The DHS OIG said it conducted an “unannounced remote inspection” of the La Palma Correctional Center (LPCC) in Eloy, Ariz., from August to November last year to determine whether the facility was in compliance with 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards, and “identified serious concerns regarding detainee care and treatment.”
LPCC, which is owned by Tennessee-based private-prison operator CoreCivic, began housing detainees at the site in 2018. The facility, with a maximum pre-COVID capacity of 3,240, had an average daily population of 978 male detainees in fiscal year 2020.
“Detainee reports and grievances allege an environment of mistreatment and verbal abuse, including in response to peaceful detainee protests of the facility’s handling of the pandemic,” OIG wrote in its report. “In addressing COVID-19, 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. In addition, LPCC did not meet standards for medical care, segregation, grievances, or detainee communication.”
The facility’s medical unit “was critically understaffed,” investigators found, and “took an average of 3.35 days to respond to detainee sick call requests, and neglected to refill some prescription medications.”
“We also found the facility was not consistently providing required care for detainees in segregation and did not consistently record medication administration and daily medical visits for segregated detainees,” the report continued. “Our grievance review revealed that LPCC did not give timely responses to most detainee grievances and, in some cases, did not respond at all. Finally, we found deficiencies in staff-detainee communication practices. Specifically, LPCC did not keep records of detainee requests and ICE did not provide a Deportation Officer visit or call schedule for detainees.”
Detainees held peaceful sit-in protests at the facility on April 11 and April 13 last year to protest the detention center not taking adequate measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“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 report states. “We confirmed LPCC used chemical agents to end the protests. During the incident on April 13, 2020, LPCC staff deployed chemical agents from the ceiling and… fired pepper spray from handheld devices. A detainee told us he suffered injuries from pepper balls fired by facility staff, but felt too intimidated to file a report about the incident through proper channels. Nonetheless, detainees filed six grievances with the facility about these incidents. The facility denied or rejected all six grievances. In response to two of the grievances, LPCC cited its policy allowing the use of non-lethal force to end such incidents. Facility staff explained the use as following policy to quell civil disobedience with non-lethal force.”
Between Feb. 1 and Aug. 24, 2020, detainees filed 1,283 grievances — 38 percent of those complained about mistreatment by LPCC staff. Some of the grievances that staff substantiated included detainees being called a racial slur or other abusive language, being threatened with pepper spray, and officers not wearing gloves in the housing units.
The facility’s August 2020 COVID-19 outbreak was preceded by not all detainees receiving face masks and a lack of social distancing, OIG said.
“Staff told us detainees are required to wear masks outside housing areas, and although they encourage detainees to wear their masks and practice social distancing within housing areas, there are often times when detainees choose not to wear their masks or practice social distancing,” the report said. “The September 2020 ICE guidance makes no distinction between the need for mask-wearing inside or outside housing areas.”
By mid-August, when ICE required the facility to test all detainees for COVID-19, 17 percent of the population tested positive.
Among the complaints of delayed medical care, two detainees who filed sick call requests saying they had fever did not receive treatment until 12-14 days later. One who complained of body aches waited 22 days.
“Staffing shortages may have contributed to this issue, including numerous vacancies on the nursing staff,” the report said. “Nonetheless, waiting days or weeks to provide medical care to detainees for acute sick call issues violates the standard for timely follow-up to detainee health needs. Delayed responses to complaints of symptoms of COVID-19 also risk the spread of the virus at the facility.”
OIG recommended to ICE’s Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations that the Phoenix Enforcement and Removal Field Office “ensure compliance and remedial action is taken to address LPCC’s use of force incidents and allegations of detainee mistreatment by staff when warranted,” “ensure LPCC provides detainees appropriate face coverings and ensures proper social distancing among detainees,” “ensure that, for detainees in segregation, LPCC provides access to laundry, legal materials, haircuts, required recreation time outside their cells, and (for those in administrative segregation) the commissary,” “require LPCC staff to complete and document medication administration and daily face-to-face medical visits with detainees in segregation to ensure detainee health and welfare,” “ensure LPCC’s Medical Unit is appropriately refilling and administering detainees’ medication,” “review LPCC’s grievance policy, processes, and procedures to ensure adherence with requirements,” “ensure LPCC records and maintains a detainee request log and properly files detainee requests,” and “ensure detainees consistent and appropriate access to ICE ERO deportation officers by identifying time, duration, and location of ICE facility visits.”
ICE did not concur with OIG’s recommendation on the use-of-force incidents, saying “reviews indicate an appropriate use-of-force and do not support the OIG’s conclusion” and that “staff responsible for alleged detainee mistreatment have already received remedial training, when warranted.” OIG replied that they consider the recommendation unresolved and will only close it “when we receive documentation outlining how ICE will ensure proper detainee treatment at LPCC.”
ICE also said that the facility is currently in compliance with CDC guidelines on COVID-19 protocols, and said they would “continue to encourage social distancing to detainees through education, communication, and encouragement rather than through a punitive, disciplinary process.” OIG said it would only consider the recommendation resolved when they “receive documentation outlining how ICE will ensure improved implementation of COVID-19 preventative measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission.”
ICE only concurred with the recommendation on documenting healthcare for detainees in segregation, improving detainee access to medications, and ensuring maintenance of a detainee request log but only “the intent of this recommendation, as ICE determined that the LPCC incorrectly maintained written detainee requests in one detainee’s detention file” but the facility was now determined by ICE to be in compliance.