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Asylum Seekers Describe Self-Harm, Faulty COVID-19 Response at ICE Detention Center
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=55786"><span class="small">Alisa Reznick, Arizona Public Media</span></a>   
Friday, 21 August 2020 12:46

Reznick writes: "A group of asylum seekers held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a detention center in Eloy say conditions inside the facility have led to hunger strikes and a string of self-harm incidents since the COVID-19 pandemic began."

An image of the group of Cuban asylum seekers and the letter they sent from the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy. (photo: No More Deaths)
An image of the group of Cuban asylum seekers and the letter they sent from the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy. (photo: No More Deaths)

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Asylum Seekers Describe Self-Harm, Faulty COVID-19 Response at ICE Detention Center

By Alisa Reznick, Arizona Public Media

21 August 20

As a federal report faults ICE's complaint-handling process in detention, a letter from Eloy describes a facility on the brink.

group of asylum seekers held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a detention center in Eloy say conditions inside the facility have led to hunger strikes and a string of self-harm incidents since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In an August letter shared with media by the advocacy group No More Deaths, 11 asylum seekers from Cuba say they are members of political opposition groups back home and came to the U.S. to seek protection. But awaiting immigration hearings at the La Palma Correctional Center, they've seen or experienced suicide attempts, self-harm incidents and mental health crises — and conditions are only getting worse.

"It seems that the country we have arrived to is not the free country the United States is supposed to be," the letter, originally written in Spanish, read. "La Palma Correctional Center has seemed more like a maximum security prison since we arrived."

The letter describes incidents in which detainees have swallowed razor blades, tried to hang themselves and had mental health breakdowns. The signers say they are some of about 300 Cubans held at La Palma, most of whom have been detained for more than a year. 

They say about 140 detainees have gone on hunger strikes to protest conditions inside. Others have asked to be deported to Cuba and other home countries instead of waiting out trial dates long delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and changing asylum policies. In one incident, the letter describes a detainee whose attempted hanging was intercepted by staff.

"Instead of helping him, the guards sprayed him with a hose," the letter read. "There are others whose names I don’t know, and in truth, I can’t speak of the suicides anymore, it is too sad."

Jenna Johnson, an attorney who works with the legal aid group Keep Tucson Together, said this isn't the first letter with those details. 

"We’ve received probably a letter a week from 10 to 20, 30, 40, 50 people who are really trying to have what’s happening to them acknowledged and heard," she said.

Johnson said her group has represented hundreds of people detained at La Palma and the Eloy Detention Center down the road. The facilities, both of which are owned by the private prison company CoreCivic, have had COVID-19 outbreaks in the last five months. 

Immigrant advocates, lawyers and detainees have long decried conditions inside ICE facilities in Arizona. At the height of La Palma's outbreak, over 120 people tested positive for the virus, according to ICE data. The facility has a capacity of over 3,000 beds, but both ICE and CoreCivic have said the facility is under capacity in order to increase the ability to social distance. The letter says detainees worry contagion will continue because new detainees are still arriving. They say some come from other detention facilities like Eloy, others are newly detained. None of the new arrivals are being tested for COVID-19.

"COVID-19 continues because they continue to bring in more detainees from the outside, who have been living in the US," the letter said. "They mix them in with the rest of us as though nothing would go wrong."

In an email, ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe said the agency follows federal health guidelines for COVID-19 testing, and said transfers occur to keep detention center populations low for social distancing. 

"All detainee transfers and transfer determinations are based on a thorough and systematic review of the most current information available," Pitts O'Keefe said. "As such, ICE takes into account important factors prior to the transfer, including the detention center and the health, safety, and welfare of the detainee, when determining if a transfer is appropriate. All decisions on movement, further isolation and monitoring are done in accordance with CDC guidelines."

ICE is required to report in-custody deaths in press releases. Pitts O'Keefe said the agency's Arizona branch hasn't had to report any this year.

In the letter, the asylum seekers say complaints about conditions in La Palma are not addressed by staff. 

"This place has been like Hell due to the treatment of the detainees by the guards," the letter read. "ICE doesn’t listen to our demands or our complaints about the acts of racism, and never visits the center."

Nationally, ICE has been faulted for failing to adequately address complaints from its facilities, even before the pandemic began.

An August report from the Government Accountability Office found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t "comprehensively analyze inspections and complaint information," thus failing to identify problematic trends. 

The report, based on 2019 data, says some form of inspection was carried out at all of ICE's 179 adult detention centers nationwide. But information from those inspections often failed to go anywhere. The report found in one instance field offices failed to address 99% of noncriminal complaints referred by an administration inquiry unit.

According to the letter, issues have worsened during the pandemic. The detainees said when COVID-19 began to spread at La Palma, many people refused to keep working in the kitchen. They said those who did were sent to solitary confinement as a form of punishment. 

"If a detainee was ordered to work and refused, he was punished for disobeying orders and sent to 'the hole' for 30-60 days," the letter read. "Anyone who is punished for any reason or cause is treated this way, for reporting injustices that are committed here."

The detainees said COVID-19 testing is still low across the facility, and those with symptoms are sometimes still not given a test. Johnson said some clients report being sent to "isolation pods" for asking for masks, testing and additional soap. 

"We have gotten reports that they've been sent to isolation pods for making those requests," she said. 

The letter said those same pods are also used to quarantine people with COVID-19. Johnson said her clients have come across cells that are unsanitary.

"They’ve gone into cells that have what looks like spit up mucus on the floor, dirty sheets, toilets full of feces and urine, clothes from the person who was in it before, and they've been giving no cleaning supplies to clean those cells," she said. 

In an email, CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin refuted the letter's claims. He said reports of self-harm incidents and possible fatalities were "patently false," and facilities, particularly in places where COVID-19 patients have been, are disinfected thoroughly before new uses. 

He said detainee work programs are voluntary, and those who don't participate are not subject to disciplinary action. 

"Our facilities do not have any form of 'solitary confinement.' We do have separate housing units that we use to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 when someone is confirmed positive for the virus, but whenever someone recovers from the virus their living area is completely sanitized and cleaned before it would be used again," he said. 

Johnson said many of the complaints in the letter mirror those she hears from clients. 

"People within ICE and CoreCivic have told me these things are exaggerated or not true," she said. "But to think of speaking out, in a public way, against the person that controls every minute of your day, over something that is untrue, that's really difficult for me to imagine."

At least 460 people detained in ICE facilities in Arizona have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Advocates warn a lack of testing means that number could be higher.

In the letter, detainees say they're writing to journalists because "there is no more coverage of La Palma." They say they want to be transferred to a different detention center or released to wait out court dates with family in the U.S. 

ICE says it's released hundreds of detainees nationwide in the wake of the pandemic. Johnson said the agency has the power to release many more on humanitarian parole. But progress is slow.

"We've had very, very few people released on parole, which is ICE's discretionary release," she said. "Mostly we're having to fight tooth and nail to get a bond hearing set."

She said bonds can cost anywhere from $9,000 to $20,000. And as they wait to get released, clients are scared.

"I think they see people disappear and they don't know what happened to them," she said. "They don't know whether they're COVID positive and they're in isolation, or they passed away and no one is telling them." your social media marketing partner