The private prison company that runs the immigrant detention center in Aurora is violating detainee rights and federal standards by denying outdoor recreation time, unnecessarily keeping some detainees handcuffed and allowing only non-contact family visitation, according to a scathing government report released Thursday.
These observations add to concerns about Aurora’s detention center, which has been accused repeatedly — including by government investigators — of offering substandard medical care to detainees. On Wednesday, The Independent published a story about an Aurora detainee who said an officer broke his hand and that he has been denied medical care for the injury.
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general says in the report his staff made unannounced visits to four Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities last year, including a stop in Aurora on Nov. 6. These visits, the report states, were inspired by complaints from advocates and watchdogs concerned about conditions for people in ICE custody.
The report suggests those concerns were well founded. GEO group, the private prison company that owns and operates the roughly 1,300-detainee Aurora facility, said in a statement provided to The Independent that it’s taking the report “seriously,” but rejects some of its findings.
All four of the facilities named in the report — Aurora’s, plus centers in Adelanto, Calif.; Essex County, N.J.; and LaSalle Parish, La. — had serious and in some cases “egregious” problems, the report found. But GEO in Aurora was the only one of the four to have been found denying detainees contact with the loved ones who visit them. The report found that these visits were needlessly taking place with glass separators.
“Private visitation meeting rooms and open area room for contact visits exist, though the facility does not use them,” the report stated, adding that detainees interviewed for the report stressed how much they would enjoy contact visits, “especially to see their children and other family members.”
In Aurora, as well as Adelanto and Essex County, the inspector general found “serious” problems with the treatment of detainees removed from the rest of the center population through what ICE terms “disciplinary segregation.”
“Detainees in segregation at Adelanto, Essex, and Aurora were not treated with the care required under ICE detention standards,” the report stated, adding that segregated Aurora detainees were being forced unnecessarily to wear handcuffs while outside their cells. There is not a valid basis for this practice, according to the report.
ICE’s own standards state that detainees shall be allowed outdoor recreation time, but, the inspector general found, GEO in Aurora does “not provide outdoor space, and recreation for detainees was located within housing units.”
Aurora’s restriction of outdoor access was particularly severe among the four facilities reviewed; female and male detainees there “had to share a recreation space, half-days each, so their access was limited,” the report stated.
Detainees told government investigators they missed sunshine, fresh air and soccer.
The inspector general also found that at GEO in Aurora, “open packaged food was not properly relabeled and dated for future consumption,” though the report calls this a “minor and easily fixed” problem.
In a response letter attached to the inspector general’s report, ICE said it is taking steps to address the problems identified in the four facilities reviewed. In Aurora, these steps include:
- Food is now being properly labeled.
- “Refresher training” on when it is OK to apply handcuffs. Staff compliance with ICE standards on handcuffing will be monitored via security cameras.
- Case-by-case evaluation of whether contact visitation should be allowed. (A Colorado-based ICE spokeswoman, Alethea Smith, told The Independent she is not sure how often it’s been allowed now.)
ICE rejected the concerns about outdoor recreation time in Aurora, stating that the recreation area has a chain-link cage as part of its ceiling, allowing for some sun, fresh air and outdoor temperatures to get in. ICE claimed the recreation offered at GEO surpasses federal standards.
A photo of the recreation area enclosed in the inspector general’s report shows a narrow basketball court with only limited sky view and sunlight.
GEO’s statement on the report said it was committed to abiding by ICE standards. It reads: “The findings identified in this report pertaining to GEO-operated facilities were swiftly corrected last year. We take seriously any shortcomings in our delivery of consistent, high-quality care, taking immediate action as needed. We always strive to provide culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments that meet the needs of the individuals in the care of federal immigration authorities.”
Colorado Congressional Reps. Jason Crow (D-Aurora) and Diana DeGette (D-Denver) both released statements on the inspector general’s report.
“ICE says that it has taken steps to correct the issues raised in this report, but I believe more needs to be done,” DeGette said. “We need to take a hard look at ICE’s use of these private prisons and, at the very least, make clear to the agency that outsourcing its responsibility to physically hold these detainees does not absolve it of its obligation to properly care for them.”
Crow called the report “deeply disturbing” and added, “We can no longer afford to allow ICE to operate in the shadows. What has happened at the detention facility in Aurora is part of a far larger systemic problem. These conditions are unsanitary, they put public health at risk, and show a fundamental disregard for human life.”
The release of the inspector general’s report comes just a day after the Trump administration said it would cut English classes, recreational activities and legal aid for unaccompanied migrant children in government custody.