Colorado ICE detainee alleges mistreatment, denial of medical care

He alleges that an officer broke his hand and that staff at the Aurora detention center has not provided him with needed treatment for the injury

Miguel Angel Avila Arce's hand was injured, he alleges, when an officer slammed a heavy cell door on it. Avila says he has barely received any medical care despite having multiple broken bones. (Photo courtesy of Esperanza Cuautle)

A man being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Aurora detention center said an officer there slammed a door on his hand, breaking it, along with his fingers — an injury he claimed staff has refused to treat.

Miguel Angel Avila Arce said his broken bones are being treated with ibuprofen and medical tape. A native of Mexico who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, he called the experience among the worst of his life.

“I would say there is negligence here all the time,” Avila, 34, told The Independent by phone on Tuesday. “I’ve heard about so many cases before, but not until now did I experience it myself. This is incredible. This is ridiculous, the way they do things here. They’re not capable to handle emergencies.”

ICE officials declined to respond to Avila’s allegations, insisting Tuesday that before they could do so The Independent must deliver a waiver to the Aurora detention center for Avila to sign. Upon being presented with the waiver form for Avila on Wednesday, an Aurora ICE official said he’d never heard of such a process, later adding that obtaining Avila’s signature could take days. Spokeswoman Alethea Smock said once the waiver is returned it will have to be reviewed by ICE attorneys. (Update: The waiver was returned Thursday and ICE declined comment later that day.)

Colorado immigrant advocates and attorneys routinely complain of inadequate medical care at the detention center, which sits just off Peoria Street in Aurora and is operated and staffed by the private prison group GEO.

Two recent stories bolster those complaints: An internal investigation by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility found that a man who died in Colorado in ICE custody in 2017 received substandard medical care, and Westword reported this week that 152 of the more than 1,300 detainees at GEO in Aurora are currently under infectious-disease quarantine.

“People here have needs. They’re very sick,” Avila said. “(Staff) think that we are faking it, and that it’s not even true. I witnessed myself a lot of times that people here experience real emergencies. There was one guy having a stroke. They took too long to take him to medical. Another guy, he passed out, basically unconscious. These things I’ve witnessed, and others, it’s the same thing over and over.”

Congressman Jason Crow, whose district includes Aurora and GEO, has in recent months called attention to medical care and general conditions at GEO. In a February letter to Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of Homeland Security, Crow wrote, “It is my understanding that the facility has only one physician for the entire population.”

Avila fled alone to the U.S. when he was 13 because his family was being threatened by a drug cartel. Avila’s older brother was a Mexican marine general at the time, and Avila “suffered extreme physical violence” as a child from armed men from the cartel who “ransacked his home, beat him up, threatened to kidnap and even kill him” if he did not give up information about his brother, according to Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, Avila’s attorney.

Miguel Angel Avila Arce at a 2014 church event. (Photo courtesy of Luis Angel Reyes Savalza)

Avila connected with grandparents in Sacramento, where he lived for more than 20 years. He suffered, and still suffers, from physical, emotional and psychological harm related to his persecution in Mexico as a child, the attorney said. Avila was arrested for DUI in 2003 at age 19 and convicted and sentenced to rehab classes but no jail time. Fifteen years later, in January of 2018, he was stopped by a police officer and cited for DUI. When he was released the next day, ICE, having coordinated with Sacramento police, picked him up, and he has been detained ever since. He’s not seen his family since ICE arrested him 15 months ago, his attorney said.

He was held initially at a detention center in Richmond, Calif., but was transferred to Colorado in August when that facility was closed.

In February, Avila, who is asthmatic, started coughing up blood and asked GEO staff repeatedly if he could see a doctor, Reyes Savalza, who is based in California, wrote in a letter to ICE last week. The attorney said the coughing was caused by cold temperatures in the detention center, and that staff never responded to his request to see a doctor.

Avila’s latest medical issue at GEO stems from a May 23 incident. He said that during a scheduled period of post-lunch downtime for inmates, a GEO officer slammed a heavy cell door on his left hand and multiple fingers. He said he was facing away from the doorway at the time, and that he did not see the door was closing. Neither Avila nor Reyes Savalza allege that the door-slamming was done intentionally, but the attorney said he’s working to gather more information before determining whether it was a deliberate assault or merely a result of recklessness.

“There was at least negligence or recklessness on the part of the guard,” the attorney said. “But it could have been done intentionally by this guard, for whatever reason. We’re investigating that.”

The incident occurred one day before Avila was to have a hearing regarding his pending application for asylum. He and Reyes Savalza had planned to prep for that hearing on May 23, but the injury prevented them from connecting, and Avila’s scheduled hearing was delayed. It has not been rescheduled.

Avila filed a grievance after the incident and Reyes Savalza said ICE informed him today that the agency has launched an investigation, which will include review of video evidence. Reyes Savalza has formally requested ICE release Avila “on humanitarian grounds.” That request is pending.

The May 23 incident, Avila said, occurred at midday. He said it was not until about 8:30 p.m. that he was taken to a hospital. He said he was transported to Denver Health in handcuffs and chains around his hands and feet.

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said of walking through the hospital. “In the hospital there were people looking at me like I was El Chapo or something.”

He said the GEO officer who was escorting him cuffed him to the hospital bed, and that the doctor seemed startled when he walked into the room.

“They got mad,” Avila said of the hospital staff, “like, ‘Why did it take so long to bring you here?’”

“He was treated so disrespectfully, chained to the bed like that,” said Lee Ann Gott of the nonprofit Colorado People’s Alliance, who visits Avila at GEO every week. “He was so embarrassed.”

Avila said doctors advised him that he had a broken hand and fingers and that he might need surgery at some point, but first a metal fixture needed to be placed on his hand. Reyes Savalza’s recent letter to ICE claimed that the doctor “warned Mr. Avila of permanent damage to his nerves and tendons and prescribed ongoing medical examinations.”

But GEO staff wouldn’t allow the metal fixture because of a ban on inmates possessing metals inside the facility, Avila said, and Reyes Savalza says Avila has had just one “cursory” medical appointment since returning to GEO and has otherwise been denied the regular examinations recommended at the hospital.

Avila was told at GEO, the attorney said, “to wait a few weeks for the pain to subside.”

He’s still waiting.

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