Advocates call for investigation into 'inhumane' conditions at Florence ICE facility

Published: Wednesday, September 21, 2022 - 10:00am
Audio icon Download mp3 (1.12 MB)

A complaint filed with the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General alleges medical neglect and unsafe conditions at an immigrant detention center in Florence.

In addition to medical issues, the complaint says immigrants detained at Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex have reported moldy or expired food and a lack of basics like toilet paper and clean drinking water. It also said the facility has had issues with understaffing and a lack of quarantine space for COVID-19 positive detainees. Detainees also reported being denied treatments from chronic conditions like hepatitis and waiting months for vision and dental care.

Laura Belous with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, one of the groups who filed the complaint, says she saw an uptick in reports about the facility starting earlier this year, when ICE detainees were being transferred in higher numbers from the La Palma Correctional Center, another detention center nearby.

"Folks were telling us that when they went to the new facility they weren’t able to access the same medications as they were using at the old facility, there were delays in getting medical appointments, folks also said their medical records didn’t follow them," she said.   

In January of this year, CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs both La Palma and the Florence facility, signed a contract with the state of Arizona to house up to 2,706 adult men incarcerated by the state. La Palma has a capacity of just over 3,000 beds.

Matthew Davio, a CoreCivic spokesperson, denied any "mass transfer" of detainees from La Palma but declined to release population numbers for either facility, citing security concerns. 

The complaint also calls for an investigation into the death of Benjamin Gonzales Soto, a Mexican national in his 30s who died within hours of being in custody at the Florence facility in July. According to a report from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about his death, Gonzales Soto was taken into ICE custody after being arrested by the Phoenix Police Department on drug possession charges.

It says medical personnel were monitoring Gonzales Soto for opioid withdrawal symptoms ahead of his transfer to the Florence facility and that he was recommended for further observation ahead of his death in the early morning hours of July 8. The report says he sustained a laceration above his right eye after a fall and went into cardiac arrest before his death. But an autopsy and official cause of death has not been released.

Davio, the CoreCivic spokesperson, denied the complaint's claims.

"The recent letter written by the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project and Freedom for Immigrants inaccurately attempts to show a causal relationship between Mr. Gonzalez-Soto’s passing and the conditions in our facility. In fact, the false and defamatory allegations in the letter are neither accurate nor reflective of our policies, procedures or values," he said in an email.

A separate report from DHS' Office of Inspector General outlined similar issues with medical response times, handling of COVID-19 protocols, and staffing at La Palma last year.

Belous' group is calling on DHS to end it contract with the Florence facility and release immigrants detained there. An ICE spokesperson didn't respond to specific questions about the complaint, but said the agency has a multi-layered inspection process and oversight program at its facilities to ensure detainee welfare and prioritizes detaining those deemed a threat to public safety.

Fronteras Immigration Law Enforcement