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Immigrants held at an immigration detention center in Arizona were subject to widespread mistreatment last year, ranging from inadequate medical care to excessive punishment for peacefully protesting lax coronavirus mitigation efforts, an internal government watchdog found.

During a remote inspection of the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) found violations that jeopardized “the health, safety, and rights” of detainees, according to a report published Thursday. Citing nearly 1,300 grievances from immigrants held at the detention facility, the internal watchdog said detainees depicted “an environment of mistreatment and verbal abuse.”

Immigrants held at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Eloy, which is run by a for-profit prison company, told inspectors they held peaceful protests in April 2020 because they were concerned that staff was not providing them the necessary protective equipment to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The detention center’s staff deployed pepper spray to quell one of the protests on April 13, according to Thursday’s report and surveillance footage.

A screenshot of the surveillance footage from April 13 shows several dozen detainees sitting or standing outside their holding cells and inside the common eating area as part of a peaceful protest. Another screenshot from later that day shows at least a dozen facility employees, many equipped with riot shields, aiming handheld pepper spray devices at a smaller group of detainees laying on the floor. The image captures one staffer spraying an immigrant who appears to be trying to stand up.

Security footage from an immigration detention facility in Arizona shows staff firing pepper spray at detainees who were peacefully protesting on April 13, 2020.

Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General

One immigrant detainee said he was injured by the pepper spray balls, but did not file a grievance report fearing reprisals by facility staff. Those who did file grievances had their complaints rejected by detention center employees, the OIG report said.

Detainees told inspectors that immigrants who participated in the protests were also punished “with lengthy stays in segregation.” According to the inspectors, those held in segregation reported being denied access to clean bedding and clothing, legal materials, the commissary, haircuts and recreation — required services for all detainees.

In addition to the alleged physical abuse, the report found that facility staff demeaned and verbally abused detainees, citing one grievance by an immigrant who reported being called a racial slur by a staffer who allegedly hanged up a family call and threatened to pepper spray him.

Thursday’s report corroborated detainees’ concerns about the spread of the coronavirus inside the Arizona detention facility. Inspectors said they found that facility staff failed to ensure all detainees had and used face masks and practiced social distancing, noting the lax protocols “may have contributed to the widespread COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.”

In August, more than 200 of 1,200 immigrants held at the Eloy facility tested positive for the coronavirus.

Inspectors also detailed subpar medical services, a common finding in external and internal reports on ICE’s sprawling detention system, which is primarily comprised of county jails and detention facilities operated by for-prison companies, like CoreCivic. The reports said the Eloy’s facility medical unit was “critically understaffed,” citing 21 vacancies that inspectors determined may have slowed responses to detainee sick calls and efforts to provide immigrants prescribed medication. 

“One detainee, who is a cancer patient, ran out of leukemia medication after the medical staff did not order a refill on time,” the report said. “Since the detainee did not hold the medication, he was not aware of when the medication was running out or how long it would take medical staff to obtain a refill.”

DHS inspectors found that employees at the Arizona detention facility had properly complied with ICE rules on separating immigrants with only civil immigration violations from those with criminal records. All immigrants held by ICE, including those with criminal charges or convictions, are, legally, in civil detention.

In its response to the report, ICE disagreed with most of the findings. It said the use-of-force examples cited in the report complied with the agency’s detention rules set in 2011 and that staff who mistreated detainees “received remedial action.” The agency also maintained that it was offering immigrants in segregation the required services.

ICE said the Eloy facility was complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocols to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The agency said it has provided immigrants in the facility soap and face coverings, as well as training on social distancing.

A spokeswoman for CoreCivic told CBS News that the company agrees with ICE’s response, saying the report “has it wrong about [La Palma Correctional Center] in more ways than it has it right.”

“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,” spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said in a statement. “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.”

DHS inspectors noted that during a follow-up inspection in 2021, the Eloy detention center was complying with rules related to medical services for immigrants in segregation. The report also said the facility instituted  a new policy requiring staff to monitor and automatically refill the medication for detainees with chronic medical conditions.