In recent months, a steady beat of complaints and official reports have painted a picture of dehumanizing, and, at times, dangerous conditions within the ICE detention facility run by GEO Group in Aurora.
Among the claims: severely inadequate medical services; above-average restriction of basic human experiences, including face-to-face family visitation and time outdoors; and harsh disciplinary standards that have included unnecessary handcuffing.
Even the U.S. government’s own inspector general issued a damning report on conditions at GEO immigrant detention facilities here and elsewhere in the country. In reviewing the 2017 death of an Aurora detainee, ICE itself acknowledged major deficiencies in care.
GEO — the nation’s largest private prison company — categorically rejects the allegations of substandard care.
“Unfortunately, these claims made by politicians and activists are severely misinformed and based on a false narrative about our role (as) a government services provider,” GEO spokesman Pablo Paez emailed The Indy on Wednesday. “We would welcome all lawmakers to visit our facilities, speak with our employees and hear directly from those individuals in our care to better understand our role as a government services provider.”
Despite GEO’s protestations, Democratic politicians in Colorado and D.C. are now mounting a coordinated attempt to find ways to force GEO and ICE to be more transparent and accountable for the treatment of the detainees held within the boundaries of a city and state that seem to have little power to ensure even basic health and safety standards are being met.
These officials are now mounting a semi-coordinated attempt to take action. It spans three levels of government — municipal, state and federal — and officials at each level have been in touch with one another, and generally see their respective efforts as complementary.
Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz says she plans to bring forth an ordinance this month to require GEO to report to the city about future communicable disease outbreaks inside the detention center. Detainees have repeatedly been forced into quarantine due to a spring of outbreaks, the latest of which reportedly affected about 150 people. The facility can hold about 1,500 people, and is used to detain only adults — though an unknown number of those adults have been separated from their children.
Hiltz is one of many uncomfortable with the fact that public health crises can take place in a building within city limits without any required notification of city officials.
“This is a first step,” she said. “We’ll see what the next step is. I have a lot of things I’d like to see happen, but it turns out there are legal barriers, federal challenges to what I’d like to see happen locally.”
Hiltz had hoped earlier this spring and summer to bring something more sweeping, perhaps including a relicensing of the Aurora facility, which the city has categorized as a “general business” — same as, say, a coffee shop or clothing store — as opposed to a detention center. A move to the latter designation would bring with it stricter oversight from the state’s public health department, among others, but Hiltz said she was advised by city attorneys that the council couldn’t carry out the ordinance she had in mind without running up against a 63-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling in direct conflict.
She said she also must contend with the fact that the majority of the council leans right, and so there’s a limited range of ordinances she can bring that are both legally solid and amenable to her colleagues.
“It’s such a long, nuanced, tricky legal situation, and it’s proving to be more nuanced than I have anticipated,” Hiltz said. “I’m continuing to have conversations to see what else can be done.”
Hiltz and others at the city level have been in regular touch with first-term U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Aurora. He introduced the Public Oversight of Detention Centers (POD) Act, which would grant members of Congress access to tour detention facilities if they give 24 hours notice.
That bill has been incorporated into an initial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations package that the House is slated to vote on this month. If passed, the Senate would produce its own version, which could or could not include POD.
Crow and Hiltz were turned away when in Feburary they showed up unannounced seeking a tour of GEO in Aurora. They and others say that they’re not convinced they’ve gotten realistic snapshots of the facility’s conditions during the official visits they have had, because those visits have been so rare and always preplanned.
Their hope is that the window-dressing they say takes place when they do drop by will become more of a norm if Crow and other officials and staffers are able to make regular visits.
“We are going to continue to be very aggressive,” Crow said in an interview last week. “There is a long way to go in changing the culture.”
Crow’s frustration with what he describes as a lack of transparency stems also from the fact that none of the various institutions involved with the facility seem willing to take responsibility for the various documented problems.
“It’s much harder to get information,” Crow said. “(GEO) will say they’re not responsible for dealing with Congress and just direct us to DHS and ICE, which will continue to stonewall.”
The passing-off of accountability was evident in the inspector general’s report, and in ICE’s response to it. While the report clearly identified a number of concerns and standards violations, it included no mandates — only recommended actions. As a result, ICE had no obligation to accept the recommendations.
In its response, the agency rejected the inspector general’s concerns about outdoor recreation time in Aurora and stated that the recreational opportunities for detainees offered at GEO surpass federal standards.
The inspector general noted that GEO detainees are denied face-to-face contact with visitors, and can only meet them with partitions in between — even though the facility has the space to accommodate contact visitation. In its response to the report, ICE stated that it would start allowing contact visitation on a case-by-case basis, but it did not specify how often it would do so. An ICE spokeswoman told The Indy she wasn’t sure how often it’s happening.
In his email, GEO spokesman Paez made clear that the company sees little merit in reports of inadequacy at the Aurora facility.
“For over thirty years, we have provided high-quality services to the federal government under both Democratic and Republican administrations,” he wrote. “GEO has had a long-standing public-private partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its predecessor agency, that dates back to the 1980s. The facilities we manage on behalf of the federal government are highly rated by independent accreditation entities and provide high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe and humane residential environments.”
Crow, among others, is skeptical. The congressman today called for an end to privately-run immigrant detention centers in the U.S., though there is no current bill seeking that end.
In the absence of proactive accountability measures from either ICE or GEO, Crow has partnered with fellow first-term Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Boulder, to request a special hearing on GEO facilities in Aurora and elsewhere before the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing has not yet been scheduled.
“It is absolutely critical that we shine a light on this Administration’s inhumane treatment of immigrants and their repeated stonewalling of Congress,” Neguse said in a press release about the request.
Some lawmakers in Colorado echoed that sentiment in interviews this week. Their next legislative session doesn’t begin until January, but several of them told The Indy they’re already brainstorming bills to either force improved conditions at GEO in Aurora or to force greater transparency. Perhaps both.
State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, an Adams County Democrat, said she’s considering introducing a bill to require more regular inspections of health and sanitation at the facility.
“It’s just like any facility in Colorado,” she said. “If we hear stories about facilities that are caring for people — a nursing home or anything else — and you hear these reports that they aren’t meeting basic health standards and there’s been reports of quarantines, … I think it’s incumbent upon us, since it’s here in Colorado, to make sure that at least some standards are met.”
ICE, like GEO, rarely initiates or responds specifically to questions from the public or elected officials about its facilities and those held within them.
In response to questions for this story, ICE said in a statement: “ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care. ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care.”
The officials taking on this accountability project say they’re committed, too.
“We’re just getting started on what we’re going to do about this facility,” Hiltz said. “GEO Group can be a part of that conversation, or not, but changes are going to be made. We are not going to allow these conditions to continue.”