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Tim Steller's opinion: Inmates trapped as epidemic hits Eloy detention center
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Tim Steller's opinion: Inmates trapped as epidemic hits Eloy detention center

Melchor Tezoquipa Delgado, at far left with his family, a 22-year Tucson resident and native of Puebla, Mexico, was arrested last year for using false identity papers.

Imagine yourself stuck inside a confined area with more than 100 other people, as one after another fall ill with a potentially fatal disease.

You can’t see a doctor.

You can’t see a judge.

And your 14-day quarantine just keeps resetting, week after week, month after month, as more people show symptoms, keeping you trapped while the infection spreads.

This is the reality inmates are describing at La Palma Correctional Center, a private prison for immigration detainees near Eloy, operated by the company CoreCivic.

Officially, 75 detainees have been confirmed as coming down with the virus — one of the highest totals in the national immigration detention system. Unofficially, inmates and their attorneys say the number is much higher, but few people are being tested.

Consider Melchor Tezoquipa Delgado’s experience. The 22-year Tucson resident, a native of Puebla, Mexico, was arrested last year for using false identity papers.

Initially booked into the Pima County jail, the 41-year-old was moved to La Palma on Feb. 26.

By April, the virus had made its way into the prison, he said, and soon he himself felt sick.

In April, he said, “I started feeling symptoms — body aches, headaches, dizziness.”

He asked to go to the doctor twice, he said, but he was never taken. I spoke with Tezoquipa Delgado by phone from the office of attorney Margo Cowan.

“It was terrible because a lot of people had fevers or were coughing. They weren’t being taken to the doctor. Or if someone did go, they said ‘drink a lot of water.’”

Tezoquipa Delgado was lucky — attorneys like Cowan, representing a legal clinic called Keep Tucson Together, got him bonded out of La Palma on May 14. He immediately went for a coronavirus test and found out he was positive a few days later. He’s back with his family in Tucson and has completed a 14-day quarantine.

Since April, La Palma detainees have banded together to help each other, protest conditions or to write letters to the outside world, asking for help. A Phoenix group called Trans Queer Pueblo has gathered some of the letters, and the office of U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick released another last week.

On April 16, a group of 39 detainees, led by Joel Edgardo Cornejo, wrote a letter complaining that inmates in his pod had gone on a peaceful hunger strike over the inadequate precautions taken for COVID-19. In response, they were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, the letter said.

On April 30, a group of 32 detainees who have medical conditions such as diabetes and asthma wrote a desperate plea for humanitarian parole, saying none of them are criminals or flight risks.

“We have a deep fear of becoming infected and dying far from our families,” they wrote.

“Here, in detention, doctors do not attend to us in a timely way. When we are sick or injured, they tell us to send a request. When we send the request it takes four to 15 days for them to come and check us, and they only prescribe us water. No matter the illness, they tell us to drink water.”

On May 18, a group of 29 detainees complained that they have no way to access the courts and live in fear of the virus getting into their pod, or “tank.”

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

On May 20, a group of 46 inmates wrote: “Our biggest concern is we are all cycling this virus, and nothing seems to change.”

But food has also become an issue, as the center has shifted to providing food boxes, they wrote. The boxes contain “two slices of bread, two slices of a sort of bologna, a small pack of Austin orange crackers 0.93 oz, a pack of graham crackers with two crackers 0.49 oz. Alongside with the hot meal, which is 1 small hot dog, 1 small chicken patty, two boiled eggs or 1 small burrito. Also sometimes they give us a fruit such as an orange or apple.”

“This is the breakfast, lunch and dinner we have been receiving for about two weeks.”

The situation wouldn’t be so desperate if there were some recourse, and there usually is in the immigration courts — at least a chance to seek release by asking a judge to set a bond.

But La Palma is in an especially bad situation. The inmates’ cases are only heard by video connection in front of Immigration Judge John Davis at Tucson’s immigration court.

But between the court being closed and Davis being off-duty, inmates have been unable to even seek a bond hearing or any relief for weeks. Tezoquipa and eight others represented by Keep Tucson Together were able to get hearings before the opportunity closed. On Friday, Tucson immigration attorneys learned that La Palma inmates will not have any access to the courts until June 8 at the earliest.

Davis has also told attorneys that he will not hear petitions to set a bond unless the detainee shows up for video court, but that’s impossible for most La Palma inmates.

“Before he left, he took the position that he would not waive the presence of clients at bond hearings,” Cowan said. “They can’t bring them out of their pod, because their pod is shut down because of the spread of the virus.”

An attorney for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Laura Lynch, told me the trap inmates are in at La Palma is highly unusual, possibly unique nationwide. La Palma has been especially problematic since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, she said.

Cowan’s partner at the Keep Tucson Together legal clinic, Jenna Johnson, said it doesn’t have to be this way.

“They could easily set up a way for our clients to make an appearance from inside their pods,” she said.

Or, at minimum, the judge could allow the attorneys to go to court without their clients. Or the court could actually open and get back to work before June 8. U.S. Representatives from Arizona Ann Kirkpatrick, Raúl Grijalva, Greg Stanton and Ruben Gallego, along with Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, wrote Immigration and Customs Enforcement Friday demanding some solution.

Without one, La Palma is just a cruel, unjust trap — a possible death trap for those with medical vulnerabilities.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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Related to this story

In this May 20 letter, 46 inmates at the La Palma Detention Center complained of dangerous treatment by the prison during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On April 16, 39 detainees signed a letter complaining of inadequate COVID-19 protections and saying they had been attacked with rubber bullets…

A group of 32 detainees with medical conditions wrote a letter saying they feared for their lives and asking for humanitarian parole.

In a May 18 letter, 29 detainees complained they have not way to access the courts amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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