How COVID-19 spread through neighboring ICE detention facilities in Eloy

By: - November 16, 2020 2:02 pm

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees gather in the yard at the Eloy Detention Center in this 2017 photo. As of Oct. 4, ICE reported 400 detainees at La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy had tested positive for COVID-19. Photo by Charlene Santiago | Cronkite News

In August, a group of Cuban asylum seekers held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the La Palma Correctional Center detailed how detainees who fell ill with coronavirus symptoms were put into isolation instead of receiving treatment.

“People with COVID-19 are treated with water and Tylenol. They don’t test people for COVID-19 even if you have symptoms, they only take your temperature,” they wrote in a letter. “There is no other type of medicine, only isolation. The medics and guards say it is not their fault if we catch the virus; they say we are strong and healthy and we can tolerate the virus.”

Weeks later, ICE reported an additional 233 COVID-19 cases at the Eloy Detention Center, a privately run facility next door to La Palma — a nearly 200% increase to the number of cases at the privately run Eloy facility.

CoreCivic, the company that runs both Eloy and La Palma, denied the allegations made by the Cuban detainees.

“Any allegations that imply that detainees ‘with COVID-19 are treated with water and Tylenol,’ or that we ‘don’t test people for COVID-19 even if you have symptoms’ are false,” the company said in a statement.

The private prison company also said it doesn’t place sick detainees into “solitary confinement” or “isolation,” but it does place them into “cohorts” to curb the spread.

“Solitary confinement, whether as a term or practice, does not exist at any of the facilities we operate. During cohorting, there is no loss of privileges or activities,” CoreCivic said.

An Arizona Mirror analysis of historical COVID-19 reporting data of ICE detention facilities in Arizona shows the agency took 2 months between testing neighboring facilities while the virus spread at a rapid pace. 

La Palma at one point had more cases of COVID-19 than any other ICE facility in the nation.

The first reported case of the virus was back in April when a 45-year-old Guatemalan immigrant tested positive for the virus. ICE wouldn’t report a surge of positive cases in La Palma until late August. 

Meanwhile, through letters sent in April and May to local community groups and members of congress, dozens of people held in La Palma warned of the spread of the virus. They painted a grim picture of detention conditions, sometimes saying that they feared for their lives. 

They pleaded for better medical attention and appropriate measures to protect their health during a global pandemic.

In an April 16 letter, Joel Edgardo Cornejo claimed he was struck with paintballs and pepper gas was used in his pod after a group of detainees conducted a strike over the protest of sick detainees.  

In another April 30 missive, 32 detainees who have conditions that put them at high risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19 said they “have a deep fear of becoming infected and dying far from our families” and asked to be released from detention. 

In a May 18 letter, more than 25 detainees denounced lax measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside La Palma. 

“There are 120 of us in a small space and that is how the pandemic propagates faster,” they wrote. “The entrance of personnel and other workers is the biggest source of danger of it entering the tank.” 

covid letter la palma
The contents of an August letter sent to local community group Trans Queer Pueblo are pictured. The letter was authored by 11 Cuban asylum-seekers detained at La Palma Correctional Center, the ICE detention facility with the most COVID-19 positive cases. Photo courtesy of Trans Queer Pueblo

Data gathered by the Vera Institute of Justice, has been downloading data from ICE’s COVID-19 website every hour to create a historical database, shows that at the La Palma facility on Aug. 28, there was a 189% increase in the number of cases. Outlets reported on this increase in cases at the time, but the other Eloy facility had a similar spike 2 months prior.

The 460% spike in cases at the Eloy Detention Center was updated to ICE’s website on June 15. ICE Public Affairs Officer Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said the facility had received additional testing kits, which led to the discovery of the cases

“In mid-June, ICE health care workers at the Eloy Detention Center (EDC) conducted testing of all detainees as part of a continuing effort to test those who were asymptomatic,” O’Keefe said. “In late August, ICE was able to expand testing to the La Palma Correctional Center (LPCC) for all detainees. This testing included over 1,000 detainees, most of whom were also asymptomatic.”

For both Eloy and La Palma, after the spikes, cases begin to plateau. At ICE’s two other facilities in nearby Florence, there are not similar spikes, but more gradual climbs upwards. 

However, by looking at the historical data, it is easier to see a fuller picture how quickly the virus spread. 

At the Florence Processing facility, the number of current cases went from 2 to 17 in two weeks. The total cumulative case count, meaning the total cases the facility has had, went from 12 to 32 in that time frame, a 166% increase in the number of cases. As of Nov. 8 there, are 76 cumulative cases. 

“ICE remains committed to providing accurate and timely information all while keeping in compliance with CDC guidelines,” O’Keefe said in a statement in response to Mirror questions as to why the agency does not put historical data on the agency’s website

The additional testing conducted in June and August by ICE has led the agency to begin conducting COVID-19 testing during intake to “mitigate further transmission of COVID-19 within the facilities,” O’Keefe said.

***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include comments from CoreCivic

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.