Tensions skyrocket as COVID-19 fears grip Arizona detention center

PHOENIX – Rodrigo Martínez was certain he had a fever. Gasping for air, he said, felt like breathing pepper. It burned.

It had been several days, and still, no one at the La Palma Correctional Center had taken his temperature, Martínez told AZCIR in a phone interview on Saturday. The 32-year-old Mexican national hadn’t been tested for COVID-19, though at least two other detainees have become infected at the private immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona where he’s been held for nearly two months.

When Martínez asked to see a medic Friday night, he said a guard told him he must submit a formal request, and warned it might take time. He needed to say “something specific,” Martínez said the guard explained before he could take him to the doctor.

“Do I have to tell you that I’m dying so you will take me?,” Martínez asked.

It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that he was taken to medical personnel, Martínez told AZCIR on Sunday. He said a nurse told him he was being seen because his attorney had called ICE. The nurse said he did not have a fever and Martínez returned to his pod without receiving painkillers.

When he got to his pod, it was in lockdown. Martínez’s cellmate, Samuel León, told AZCIR that facility personnel had used pepper spray Saturday evening to end a protest over the treatment of sick detainees – an allegation ICE confirmed Monday. León said the spray entered inside their cells, causing everyone to cough – especially those who were already sick.

León, a 26-year-old Mexican national, said for the past three days, he has had a cough, fatigue and what felt like a fever. Both men said facility staff checked everyone’s temperature in their pod for the first time on Sunday morning.

Read more at Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting