Tensions rise as COVID-19 fears grip Arizona detention center

PHOENIX – Rodrigo Martínez was certain he had a fever. Gasping for air, he said, felt like breathing pepper. It burned.

It had been several days, and still, no one at the La Palma Correctional Center had taken his temperature, Martínez told AZCIR in a phone interview on Saturday. The 32-year-old Mexican national hadn’t been tested for COVID-19, though at least two other detainees have become infected at the private immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona where he’s been held for nearly two months.

When Martínez asked to see a medic Friday night, he said a guard told him he must submit a formal request, and warned it might take time. He needed to say “something specific,” Martínez said the guard explained before he could take him to the doctor.

“Do I have to tell you that I’m dying so you will take me?,” Martínez asked.

It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that he was taken to medical personnel, Martínez told AZCIR on Sunday. He said a nurse told him he was being seen because his attorney had called ICE. The nurse said he did not have a fever and Martínez returned to his pod without receiving painkillers.

When he got to his pod, it was in lockdown. Martínez’s cellmate, Samuel León, told AZCIR that facility personnel had used pepper spray Saturday evening to end a protest over the treatment of sick detainees – an allegation ICE confirmed Monday. León said the spray entered inside their cells, causing everyone to cough – especially those who were already sick.

León, a 26-year-old Mexican national, said for the past three days, he has had a cough, fatigue and what felt like a fever. Both men said facility staff checked everyone’s temperature in their pod for the first time on Sunday morning.

In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, CoreCivic spokesperson Amanda Gilchrist wrote that staff responded to a protest of detainees “who became disruptive and confrontational, refusing to comply with verbal directives provided by facility staff.” The statement went on to say that facility staff “successfully restored order, with no injuries occurring as a result of this incident to detainees or staff.”

ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe confirmed the Saturday protest and response at La Palma in a written statement Monday. La Palma facility staff deployed “oleoresin capsicum, commonly referred to as ‘OC’ spray” after a group of detainees refused to comply with staff orders, the statement said, adding “This calculated use of force was conducted consistent with agency protocol.”

Martínez and León’s accounts are the latest in a string of complaints raised by detainees held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in Arizona and across the country. As COVID-19 fills hospitals and strains the nation’s health care system, experts are concerned the nation’s immigration detention centers are a hotspot for the virus to spread quickly. Detainees held in close quarters are unable to practice social distancing.

Advocacy groups, attorneys and medical experts are putting pressure on federal immigration officials to release detainees. On Friday, protesters drove around La Palma and the nearby Eloy Detention Center demanding ICE release the men and women held inside.

As of April 4, ICE had 2,970 immigrants detained at its Arizona facilities, according to the agency. La Palma can hold more than 3,000 individuals, according to records, but ICE and CoreCivic – the private company operating the facility – did not provide current figures.

AZCIR interviewed a dozen men who are detained in La Palma, all of whom expressed serious concerns about how the facility is managing the COVID-19 crisis. They describe communal spaces that are not properly sanitized, scarcity of soap, lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a failure by facility staff to adequately inform detainees about the virus – charges denied by CoreCivic.

The La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona is shown here on April 10, 2020. The facility houses U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees and is managed by CoreCivic. (Photo by Nicole Neri | AZCIR)

“Claims that staff are ignoring the medical needs of detainees is patently false,” CoreCivic spokesperson Gilchrist wrote in an emailed statement. “Sick calls are processed without delay and anyone who is not well/exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 is immediately referred to medical.” An ICE spokesperson said she was unable to respond before AZCIR’s deadline.

Arizona’s immigration detention centers are mostly clustered in rural Pinal County, which also houses several prisons. The potential for COVID-19 to spread in these facilities poses a threat to the county’s hospitals, which were treating 32 patients infected with the virus as of Friday. As of April 12, the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry confirmed 8 cases of COVID-19 statewide, out of 75 inmates tested. Five of the confirmed cases were in Pinal County.

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