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Nearly half the employees at an Arizona ICE detention center have tested positive for COVID-19

One guard has died. Two employees and 14 migrants say a staff shortage has left detainees in cells without access to showers, laundry and other necessities.
An unmarked police truck idles outside a detention center in Eloy, Ariz., on Jan. 20, 2016.
An unmarked police truck idles outside a detention center in Eloy, Ariz., on Jan. 20, 2016.Ricardo Arduengo / AP file

WASHINGTON — Nearly half the employees at an Arizona ICE detention center have tested positive for COVID-19, with a guard dying of the disease, and according to two employees and 14 migrants, a shortage of staff has left detainees in their cells without access to showers, laundry and other necessities.

CoreCivic, the company contracted to run the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, said 127 of about 300 total CoreCivic employees at Eloy have tested positive since the start of the pandemic, although some have recovered and are back to work. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not publicly report the number of contract employees infected, so it was not previously known how many staff members at Eloy had contracted the virus.

"There is fear in our staff. How can you work in a place where you fear for your life or fear for your family?" one of the workers asked recently on condition of anonymity. The worker's concerns echoed those previously described by Eloy staffers to the Arizona Republic.

ICE reports that 242 immigrants held in Eloy have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic, and immigrant rights groups have sued to see that more migrants are released out of concern that they could become infected. The population of the facility shifts constantly, but it can hold 1,500 detainees.

Lawyers for the Florence Project, one of the groups fighting to release more migrants, spoke to 13 of their Eloy clients in June and said nearly all reported a decline in the number of guards who usually watch their cells.

Four reported having been held in their cells at least once for over 24 hours because of a lack of guards to monitor them; others reported consistently having been kept in their cells for all but 20 minutes a day.

"He said for the past two weeks, the number of guards has been decreasing," reads one of the migrant accounts the lawyers reported in mid-June. "As a result, no one has been able to take them for rec time, so rec time has not happened for a week and a half. Another service that is affected is laundry, which is down to once a week. People are starting to wash their own clothes."

Another account said, "A client yesterday (Tuesday, June 16) said that due to lack of guards in Eloy they are being kept locked in the rooms (cells) all day, and it is impacting whether they can be brought to visitation to call their attorneys."

A third account from June said: "Another client in Eloy reports being locked up from 6 p.m. onward during the week and all day over the weekend. She reports not getting food or water for over 24 hours over the weekend due to lack of staffing."

A fourth account from the same time said: "A client reported again that they are in lockdown from 7 p.m. until 3 p.m. the next day. The time that they are out of lockdown is the only time to bathe or make calls."

CoreCivic denied that during the pandemic detainees have been denied access to basic needs like food, showers, laundry or access to lawyers.

"It would seem that detainees may be using the word 'lockdowns' to refer to the facility's cohorting procedures, which is intended to prevent the spread of infection. During cohorting, there is no loss of privileges or activities. Detainees have never been confined to their cells for 23 hours," a CoreCivic spokesman said.

One of the employees told NBC News in July: "Sometimes we don't have enough staff to let out a pod," referring to cellblocks of about 50 people. "They stay on lockdown because we don't have enough staff to open that pod."

A spokesperson said ICE has begun conducting voluntary testing on all detainees at Eloy and has ceased intake for all new admissions "to further assess the current population and reduce the spread of COVID-19."

Detainees and employees said they believe more should have been done earlier to contain the virus.

According to a filing in Arizona federal court that has not previously been made public, detainee Yarjelis Madueno Davila told her attorney in May: "The Correctional Officers don't regularly use masks and gloves. Even if they do have masks on, the Correctional Officers sometimes take them off to speak."

A CoreCivic spokesman said, "Consistent with CDC recommendations, face masks have been provided to all staff and individuals in our care at every facility, including Eloy, since April. Staff are required to wear masks."

Davila also said, "For hygiene, we get three little containers of shampoo, about 1.5 ounces each per week. We do not get soap."

Responding to Davila's allegations, CoreCivic said, "Soap and other basic essentials like shampoo are provided to detainees free of charge. Detainees can request and obtain additional soap as needed."

She also reported to her attorney having received only one mask for an entire month and being able to reach out and touch the woman next to her when she was talking to her attorney on the phone from Eloy, according to the court filing.

CoreCivic said: "Should any detainee need a new face mask, they are provided one. Detainees have been issued two face masks and can have one washed with their uniforms on laundry days." In addition, CoreCivic said, "facility staff have marked off certain phones that aren't to be used with an 'X' or covered them in a plastic bag to create appropriate social distancing when detainees need to make phone calls."

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In a statement to NBC News, the company said: "COVID-19 has created extraordinary challenges for every corrections and detention system in America — public and private. At the same time, the state of Arizona on the whole is experiencing significant growth in COVID-19 cases. We have worked closely together with our government partners and state health officials to respond to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.

"These are baseless allegations, and the claims simply do not reflect the affirmative, proactive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 our facility has been taking for months. We care deeply for our hard-working, dedicated employees and the detainees in our care, and we're committed to their safety. We work hard to ensure that they have the necessary tools to feel safe doing their jobs every day."

A 'war zone'

An employee said that in recent weeks he and others have been scared to go to work at Eloy. He said leaders at the facility should have done a better job informing staff early on whether they had come into contact with someone with the virus.

"Most of our staff is in a war zone. We are exposed on a daily basis," the employee said. "They were not doing the best contract tracing in the facility, and that's why I think the exposure has spread between staff, detainees and family members of staff."

IMAGE: Protest near Eloy Detention Center
Demonstrators gather near the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Ariz., for a vigil for detained immigrants on Nov. 10, 2017.NurPhoto / NurPhoto via Getty Images

CoreCivic said Eloy "has been staffed appropriately throughout the pandemic" and has moved 50 of its employees to the facility from its other locations around the country.

"Part of our COVID-19 comprehensive planning includes contingencies to employ staff from other facilities from around the country with lower COVID-19 impacts to support facilities that may have higher COVID-19 impacts," a spokesperson said in a statement.

CoreCivic provides increased pay for all staff members who choose to be assigned to other locations, as well as a $500 "Hero Bonus" for all front-line workers.

But another employee who spoke to NBC News said staff members have taken the virus home and that some family members have been infected.

After the death of the guard, the other employee said, a few staffers stopped going to work "due to fear for their families."

The employee, who still goes to work at Eloy, said he takes pity on the detainees who are kept in their cells during the pandemic.

"They're locked up. They're not able to deal with their cases," he said. "We sometimes can't let them out to use the phone due to a lack of employees. It's overwhelming, not just for the detainees, but for the staff, as well. We can see it in their faces."

Julia Ainsley reported from Washington. Jacob Soboroff reported from Los Angeles.