Lawyers representing a group of detainees at an Arizona immigrant detention center are pointing to a letter they say details dangerous conditions in custody as coronavirus spreads in the facility.
For instance, the facility continued using the detainees as workers in the kitchen “knowing it was the place where the Coronavirus started spreading” until the kitchen was suspended, according to the letter, which was received and disseminated by the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project.
In one case, the letter, which was translated from Spanish to English, alleges that a detainee was asked to clean the door of a cell that had walls “covered in the feces,” without being given requested gloves.
“We’re begging for your help because this is a life or death situation,” states the letter, which was purportedly signed by 70 detainees held at the La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, and released to CNN by advocates pushing for their release.
The letter, dated May 18 and first publicized this week in a report from NBC News, alleges that social distancing measures have not been put in place at the facility and that detainees continue to clean areas as fears over coronavirus mount.
It comes as advocates filed a lawsuit this week asking a federal judge to order the release of 13 medically vulnerable detainees from La Palma and the neighboring Eloy Detention Center.
“The more people that are getting sick inside the detention centers, the more people that are getting sick in the community and the more hospitals and doctors in the community are taxed,” said Laura Belous, an attorney with the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, which is advocating for alternatives to detention to help stop the spread.
The two Arizona facilities are managed by the immigration detention contracting company CoreCivic, which denied the claims in the letter. ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
According to Steven Owen, managing director of communications at CoreCivic, detainees are permitted to participate in voluntary work programs. Should they choose to participate in these programs, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) was and is provided for the task at hand. Those individuals who work in the kitchen are equipped with hair and beard nets, gloves and – since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic – face masks.
Owen said that given the low population at the La Palma facility, anyone is capable of social distancing should he or she choose to do so. Each shower is separated by curtains and/or block walls. Each cell contains a toilet and sink (with hot water), and soap is provided to the detainees free of charge, according to Owen.
“We have closely followed the Centers for Disease Control guidance and recommendations on PPE usage of staff and those entrusted to our care within correctional and detention facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Owen.
The letter, signed by detainees from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, Mexico, Bangladesh, India and other countries, alleges a number of issues at the facility.
It states that the cells continue to have two “detainees in them with the toilet inside of them and minimal hygiene.” The migrants also say that cleaning products continue to be basic and, on the weekends, there is no toilet paper. In addition to health issues, the migrants raised concerns about the length of stay in the facility and access to court hearings.
There have been 78 confirmed cases of coronavirus at the La Palma facility since testing began in February, with 14 current cases, according to ICE data.
Overall, the agency has had a total of 1,810 confirmed cases as of this week.
For months, numerous immigrant advocacy organizations and human rights groups have been pushing for ICE to release detainees in its custody as the pandemic grew. The new accusations come amid ongoing criticism of the agency’s health and safety standards and after a warning from doctors over the health risks inside detention centers.
The lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union and Perkins Coie law firm, argues that detainees “remain trapped in what are essentially tinderboxes on the verge of explosion, still without the ability to take the most basic measures to protect themselves.”
CNN’s Catherine Shoichet and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this story.