Investigation finds ICE-contracted private prison violated COVID safety violations

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The facility is owned by private prison company CoreCivic, which has faced allegations of understaffing, work violations, and delays in medical care in the past.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General released a report on Tuesday that detailed allegations of COVID-19 safety violations at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement-contracted detention facility owned by CoreCivic, a for-profit prison company with a history of alleged abuse.

The report found that La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, had not appropriately enforced several precautions, including face coverings and social distancing, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The oversight may have contributed to a widespread coronavirus outbreak at the detention center, the report stated.

The inspector general also reported that the facility had a "critically understaffed" medical unit and did not meet proper care standards. Detained immigrants showing symptoms of COVID-19 did not receive timely medical attention, the report found. For instance, two detained immigrants who claimed they were experiencing fevers and filed sick call requests did not receive treatment until at least 12 days later.

The report alleged that officers also used excessive force against detainees on April 11 and 13, 2020, deploying pepper spray, pepper balls, and chemical agents during peaceful protests to demand appropriate COVID-19 protective equipment.

The report noted that out of the 1,283 grievances detained immigrants filed, 38% were complaints of mistreatment by the facility's staff.

ICE officials pushed back against the draft report in a March 19 memo, claiming they had complied with all safety precautions and that the detainees' allegations were uncorroborated.

"ICE is also concerned that the OIG's draft report omits necessary context in several instances, without which a reader may assume that violations of the standards had occurred, when in fact, none occurred," the agency claimed.

CoreCivic in a statement said it supported ICE officials' denials of the claims detailed in the inspector general report. "We agree with feedback provided by ICE that the OIG report has it wrong about LPCC in more ways than it has it right," a spokesperson said. "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."

They added, "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."

CoreCivic, one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, has faced a number of allegations of mismanagement or abuse in the past, which it has vigorously denied. In several cases, the company insisted it had addressed the problems head on, once alerted to them.

A DHS Office of Inspector General report in 2017 found a number of troubling issues at the CoreCivic-owned Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin Georgia. The report detailed long delays in medical care, staffing shortages, as well as deficiencies in cleanliness and supplies for hygiene.

Detained immigrants "complained that some of the basic hygienic supplies, such as toilet paper, shampoo, soap, lotion, and toothpaste, were not provided promptly or at all when detainees ran out of them," the report said.

CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said in a statement at the time that the issues identified in the report had been quickly remedied, adding, "CoreCivic cares deeply about every person in our care. Our immigration facilities are monitored very closely by the government, and each and every one is required to undergo regular review and audit processes that include ensuring an appropriate standard of living for all detainees."

A 2017 Tennessee state audit also cited critical staff shortages at Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville. "A sample of 3 different days in 3 months revealed 44 critical posts unstaffed. We might have identified more unstaffed posts, but our review was limited by the blank staffing rosters," the report read.

CoreCivic was later fined over $2 million for the issues at the Tennessee prison, but said in a statement it had implemented changes to address the problem.

"We still have work to do," a company spokesperson said at the time. "For example, we’ve significantly increased pay to attract and retain employees, with the starting salary at Trousdale now more than $16 per hour."

In 2018, a woman sued CoreCivic, alleging that guards at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas forced her and other detained immigrants to work $1 or $2 a day or otherwise be subjected to solitary confinement.

CoreCivic's Houston Processing Center, ICE Laredo Center, South Texas Residential Facility in DilleyCore, and Webb County Detention Center in Laredo have also faced allegations of worker violations.

Responding to the 2018 allegations at the T. Don Hutto facility, a spokesperson said at the time, "All work programs at our ICE detention facilities are completely voluntary and operated in full compliance with ICE standards, including federally mandated minimum wage rates for detainee labor."

A violation tracker from the national policy resource center Good Jobs First nonprofit found that CoreCivic had accumulated penalties of more than $23,000,000 in employment-related offenses since 2000.

Additionally, in January 2020, CoreCivic was named in an audit of the Whiteville Correctional Facility and Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennessee.

The audit claimed the CoreCivic-owned facilities mishandled sexual abuse and harassment claims, filing allegations as much as 10 days late.

CoreCivic, which donated $250,000 to Donald Trump's inauguration, ultimately profiting off of the results of his various immigration policies, said in response to that audit that the company was "committed to providing a high standard of care for every person in our Tennessee facilities."

In an email on Friday, a CoreCivic spokesperson addressed the past allegations against the company, claiming that its staffing issues had since been remedied — "Significantly increasing wages and bonuses...has already led to a 24% reduction in staff turnover," they said, referring to the Trousdale Turner problems — and rebutting allegations of inmate work violations.

"Detainees are subject to no disciplinary action whatsoever if they choose not to participate in the work program. We set and deliver the same high standard of care — including three daily meals, access to health care and other everyday living needs — regardless of whether a detainee participates in a voluntary work program," they claimed.

Remarking on the Good Jobs First tracker, the spokesperson said, "To characterize the total as 'penalties' is not accurate and is an oversimplification."

In regards to claims the company had mishandle sexual abuse claims, they added, "All allegations of sexual misconduct are promptly, thoroughly and objectively investigated. They are tracked through an incident reporting database and reviewed within 72 hours."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.