The former ICE detainee agreed to talk under one condition: That he be called “Elvis.”
The Salvadoran with a pompadour and an “I’d rather be in Memphis” T-shirt was pacing and singing to nobody in particular at the Commerce City park where we arranged to meet. He was still singing when the interview began.
He sang in low, mournful tones about his mother’s death when he was 9, and about the stepfather who abandoned him at 13. He sang about hitching rides to Mexico at 15 and at 16 spending all the money his mother left him so he could hide in an auto parts truck to cross the border into Texas. He sang about singing her favorite songs in his church choir and at his job as a gutter installer, and about moonlighting as an Elvis Presley impersonator when he can get the work.
His song stopped when our interview turned to the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came to question him about an unresolved DUI, and how those questions landed him in the Aurora ICE Processing Center because he is undocumented. It wasn’t, he admits, entirely unexpected.
But what he didn’t expect, he says, was that while in detention, he would be placed into isolation 23 hours a day for reasons that, years later, still make the baritone weep.
“I sing when I have stress,” he struggled to say through his tears. “And the guards, well, they didn’t want me singing.”
ICE has a long, yet little-known record of holding detainees in solitary confinement – a term the agency forcefully rejects, preferring “segregation” in “Restricted Housing Units” (RMUs) or “Special Management Units” (SMUs), instead. Whatever the nomenclature, ICE is isolating some detainees 22 to 23 hours a day in cells less than half the size of a standard parking space, with little more human contact than the hand that slides a food tray through a door slot and the hand that comes to retrieve it.
Although most state governments don’t entrust private corrections companies to impose solitary confinement, the federal government allows the GEO Group, Inc. – one of the nation’s largest such companies – to do so at its processing center in Aurora.
The 33-year-old center, located in an industrial area a few blocks from the northeastern Denver border, holds detainees, including asylum-seekers, who have been rounded up by ICE agents or flown in from the borders. Of its 1,532 beds, 48 are in cells designed for solitary confinement. They are 84 square feet and windowless, each with a toilet, sink and bed.
The agency points to its 475-page standards and operations manual to explain why such cells are needed: “This detention standard protects detainees, staff, contractors, volunteers and the community from harm by segregating certain detainees from the general population.”
The manual distinguishes between two forms of isolation.
“Disciplinary Segregation” is punitive, meted out for infractions ranging from showing insubordination toward a corrections officer to killing someone. Placement requires a disciplinary hearing by GEO staffers, which detainees’ lawyers often aren’t allowed to attend, even if their clients have been deemed mentally incompetent. Detainees’ privileges are limited and they are allowed out of their cells for only an hour a day to shower, exercise or sit in a day room and watch TV.
“Administrative Segregation” allows GEO officials to isolate detainees for administrative reasons, which can be vague and subjective. Detainees in “Ad Seg,” as it’s called, are afforded more privileges than those in disciplinary segregation, with two hours out of their cells each day.
Records obtained from ICE through a Freedom of Information Act request by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and narrowed specifically to Colorado by Arizona Mirror reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy – who has been reporting on ICE in that state – give a rare glimpse at how GEO carries out isolation in Aurora.
The spreadsheet breaks down solitary confinement placements by gender, country of origin, reason for placement, dates of placement and release, and, among other data, whether a detainee has legal representation and mental illness.
From March 2013 through February 2017, the corporation reported 123 placements in its Aurora facility’s segregation cells, all for male detainees. ICE redacted the detainees’ names, so it is unclear from the data how many of those placements represent unique individuals and how many were men repeatedly being segregated. Elvis, for example, says he was sent to “the hole” three times.
Of those 123 placements: 36% were put into segregated cells for “protective custody,” 26% for “disciplinary reasons,” 21% to isolate detainees who were the subjects of pending investigations, 9% for those on hunger strike, and 8% for unspecified reasons.
Immigration lawyers who work with clients at Aurora say some gay men and trans women have opted to be placed in solitary cells because they feel unsafe in the facility’s general population. The lawyers also say GEO uses the cells when there is overflow from other parts of the facility and nowhere else to house detainees.
According to ICE’s standards manual, the agency strives to segregate detainees for no more than 30 days, unless a case involves “extraordinary circumstances.” A Colorado Independent analysis of ICE’s data finds that GEO isolated detainees in solitary confinement for an average of 45 days. Of the 123 placements listed, the shortest stint was two days and the longest nine months.
Though the records came from ICE, its Colorado spokeswoman, Alethea Smock, wrote in response to questions from The Independent that the agency “has no information on these cases at this time in our restrictive housing units and we cannot verify statistics gathered from outside our organization.”
Neither ICE nor GEO will say how many detainees are currently in segregation in Aurora, nor how many have been isolated there in the past two years.
“We don’t have this information available at this time,” Smock wrote.
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, D-Aurora, led Colorado’s three other Democratic Congress members on a tour of the Aurora facility in July. One of the members asked if GEO imposes solitary confinement. The members told The Independent that company officials told them no. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, a former public defender and former litigator on prison issues, says she asked, “Well, if you don’t have solitary confinement, what do you do for discipline to remove an inmate from general population?” She says GEO officials used an administrative term nobody understood, and didn’t have numbers when asked how many detainees were held there. Later on the tour, DeGette recalls, somebody asked again: Does GEO use solitary confinement?
“They said, ‘Well, if we have inmates who feel anxious in the population, we have a place where they can go and be by themselves’,” DeGette says.
“I feel like there was an over-adherence to terminology,” she went on to say. “Did they lie to me? No. But if I didn’t use the right words, they weren’t going to help me out.”
Pablo E. Paez is GEO’s executive vice president for corporate relations. He says the Aurora facility adheres to performance-based national standards set by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including those governing the use of special management units.
“As a service provider to a federal agency, our company is contractually required to meet DHS policies and standards and plays no role in creating them,” he wrote in an email. “We can’t solve the immigration crisis from our facility. But for more than 30 years, our leadership and employees have been committed to protecting those entering the facility and ensuring they are provided high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe, secure, and humane environments, and are treated with compassion, dignity and respect.”
Heading to the hole
Most migrants who come to the U.S. illegally say desperation forced them to flee their countries. Most faced difficulty and danger crossing one or more borders to get here. Most arrive with no resources, little command of English, and no community, but many manage to overcome those challenges and rebuild their lives. The decision to leave their home countries was a risky and uncomfortable calculation, 11 former detainees tell The Independent, but one they or their parents made because discomfort trumps despair.
They say the knowledge that ICE might one day catch up to them didn’t ease the shock when that day came.
“You are never prepared for it,” says a 43-year-old Guatemalan brick layer from Thornton who, like Elvis, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It is in this context, under considerable stress, that former detainees say it becomes all too easy to lash out at the guy snoring, complaining or bullying you in the next bunk, or at a corrections officer shouting orders, or at the world, or fate or a god by whom they felt betrayed.
“I should be punished for trying to survive?” – former detainee from Mexico
“You may do a thing, you may say a thing that brings you regret or shame,” says a North African migrant who says he spent two weeks in solitary confinement for fighting with a detainee he says was “using my stuff.” “Maybe everybody in there is having, how do you say, crisis.”
“For me, I was frustrated,” adds a man from Mexico who says he spent about a month in solitary for shoving an officer after more than two weeks of sleeplessness caused by wheezing from asthma he says GEO would not treat.
“I should be punished for trying to survive?” he says.
His and the North African’s time in isolation did not fall within the four-year period reflected in ICE’s data. One of Elvis’s three placements did, but doesn’t show up in the records, either, because his nationality and the dates of his confinements don’t match up.
He says he was thrown in the hole three times for showing “insolence” toward corrections officers. The now-fluent English speaker doesn’t know what insolence means, but is pretty sure it relates to him defying guards’ orders to stop singing during their shifts. He admits to having occasionally forgotten their warnings, and says songs would “just leak” out of him.
A close friend from his church, sitting in on part of our interview, looks at me and points to her head.
“Maniaco depresivo,” she says.
Lack of treatment
ICE’s standards require that “Detainees must be evaluated by a medical professional prior to placement” in segregation. They also say: “Health care personnel shall conduct face-to-face medical assessments at least once daily for detainees in an SMU. Where reason for concern exists, assessments shall be followed up with a complete evaluation by a qualified medical or mental health professional, and indicated treatment.”
The agency, ICE’s Smock wrote in an email, is “committed to ensuring that those in our custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
Elvis says the mental health part of his check-ins amounted to “Good morning, Mr. (name omitted), are you hallucinating or suicidal today?” He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress-, obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders since bonding out of detention. Elvis’s attorney, also interviewed for this story, succeed in having a stay placed on his deportation.
“I’d die if they sent me back in there.” – Elvis
If GEO had asked why he sang so often around corrections officers and other detainees, he would have said it was his way of comforting himself in a facility that reminded him of an orphanage where he says he lived briefly in San Salvador and was assaulted by other boys.
If staffers had asked how he was holding up in isolation, he says he would have told them that his tight cell stirred memories of the armoire in which his stepfather forced him to sleep when his mother was dying and other women would spend the night. He would have said the experience was flashing him back to the day he stood in the center of a wood pallet surrounded by boxes of auto parts in an airless semi-truck wondering if he would still be alive once it crossed the border.
But GEO staffers didn’t ask, he says, nor did they offer psychological treatment during his nine months in Aurora. He hums, rocking back and forth, recalling the constant teeter between living in isolation and living among hundreds of anxious strangers. He cracks his knuckles explaining what it was like not knowing what day or time it was in a fluorescent-lit cell without windows or a light switch. And he clutches his throat describing the terror that can come with having no voice.
“I communicate (by) singing,” he says. And he tried hard to muzzle himself to work his way out of the hole.
“It broke him,” his church friend says of his time in isolation.
“I would die. I’d die if they sent me back in there,” he adds.
Elvis – whose story The Independent confirmed with his lawyer – fears ICE or GEO staff will retaliate against him for speaking out. That fear is what prompts him and most other former detainees to demand reporters use pseudonyms in news stories, if they agree to interviews at all. It’s what leads them to insist on meeting in parks rather than at their homes or the homes of people who help them.
The condition of anonymity puts ICE at a disadvantage, unable to respond about specific cases. Smock wrote that her agency cannot research or provide information on allegations of medical mistreatment “without the specific details, including the names and signed privacy-waiver forms of the current or former detainees who have made these allegations.”
“For the people you interviewed,” she added, “if they’re not being detained, we’re not sure what they would be fearful of.”
Checking the “no” box
Details in ICE’s own data echo what former detainees have told The Independent.
They show that in late 2015 GEO officials in Aurora isolated a man from El Salvador for what staffers described as displaying “abnormal behavior (masturbating/taking off clothes) in his cell that housed three other detainees.” They reviewed his placement in segregation after a month and then after two months, when they wrote, “Subject continues to exhibit bizarre behavior and will remain in Seg at this time.” After three months, they wrote that “GEO Medical is considering sending him to an outside mental health hospital for evaluation.” But he was still in isolation at four months, continuing to “exhibit bizarre behavior that would be disruptive in general population.” And he was still there at five months when GEO referred him “to tele-psychiatry” – a cheaper option than meeting in person with a doctor for a mental health evaluation. His placement in solitary lasted nearly seven months until the corporation released him from custody on bond.
GEO officials checked “no” in a box asking if he had mental illness.
In 2016, GEO officials in Aurora isolated a man from Ghana because “he appears to be unstable,” the records show. It was “not his first time in Seg.” The corporation kept him isolated after he flooded his cell (typically accomplished by clogging the toilet and repeatedly flushing) several times as a way to force staffers to let him out. It kept him isolated after the warden ordered GEO’s emergency response team to extricate him from his cell and move him to another because he had shredded his mattress and pillow. And it kept him in solitary after he, on more than one occasion, threw feces and urine at staff members through his cell door. The records include no mention of providing mental health treatment or moving the man to a place where he could get psychiatric care. Instead, they show GEO’s staff recommended “continue Seg placement until he stabilizes enough to be placed back in general population.”
They marked him, too, as a “no” under mental illness.
Several psychological, psychiatric and human rights organizations have deemed solitary confinement to be psychologically harmful to prisoners, and Juan Mendez, the United Nations special Rapporteur on torture, has said any stint in solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days amounts to torture.
“From my experience, I think it’s pretty clear that seclusion is torture to some individuals, some more than others. It can make mental illness worse and can also cause mental illness among people who previously weren’t mentally ill,” says David Drake, a psychiatrist and director of AXIS Health System over a five-county area in Southwest Colorado who has worked extensively with prisoners. Flooding a cell and throwing excrement, he adds, are signs “of someone who has become acutely disturbed” and needs help.
GEO classified all but one of the detainees in the data set as not having mental illness. The lone exception was a Jordanian man who in 2014 had made comments about sexual abuse and threatened staff.
In December 2015, the data shows that GEO placed 11 Bangladeshi detainees in solitary confinement because they were hunger striking. Those men had no lawyers – nor did the men in 97% of the placements listed in ICE’s records. Immigration attorneys say that less than 10% of the facility’s detainees currently have legal representation.
At the time, the Bangladeshis contacted The Colorado Independent through an intermediary to report a lack of medical care and legal counsel in the Aurora facility. The intermediary called around the clock, using words like “Save our ship” and “SOS” to convey their urgency.
The ICE data shows the Bangladeshis started eating and were released from solitary after about six days.
ICE tells The Independent that it “ensures detention facilities comply with ICE detention standards through an aggressive inspections program.” Detention centers that aren’t in compliance with its standards, it noted, are shut down under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Appropriations law.
“ICE does not tolerate any mistreatment or abuse of people in our custody.” – John Fabbricatore, acting field office director, ICE enforcement and removal operations
An email from the agency pointed out the creation in 2009 of the Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), an independent body that conducts inspections intended to put extra scrutiny on detention center compliance with standards.
“ICE does not tolerate any mistreatment or abuse of people in our custody,” John Fabbricatore, acting field office director for ICE’s enforcement and removal operations in Denver, wrote in a statement for this story.
“Our deportation officers work hard within the bounds of the law and ensure the guidelines set forth in the Performance-Based National Detention Standards, 2011, are followed at the detention facility. Unsubstantiated allegations published by the media without thorough investigation diminishes the exceptional work the men and women of ICE do every day to keep our communities safe from criminal aliens.”
But watchdogs argue that ICE is going too easy on GEO’s operation in Aurora.
In June 2018 and again in June of this year, the American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association – which represents attorneys who work on detainees’ behalf – wrote ICE and the Department of Homeland Security about what they called GEO’s “Failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care” at Aurora. Lack of care not only violates detainees’ human rights, they wrote, but also interferes with detainees’ ability to assist their lawyers – when they have them – with their cases.
The groups pointed to ICE’s own Office of Detention Oversight review of the Aurora facility in 2016, which found it compliant with only seven of ICE’s 16 national standards, and found 24 deficiencies in the remaining nine standards.
Their letters cited leaked DHS documents containing an internal memo with the subject line, “Urgent Matter,” saying that nationally there have been deaths of detainees in ICE custody that were preventable. The letters also cited a 2018 memo in which an ICE supervisor wrote the agency’s deputy director to say ICE’s Health Service Corps “is severely dysfunctional and unfortunately preventable harm and death to detainees has occurred.”
In the last decade, two men have died at the Aurora facility – Evalin-Ali Mandza of Gabon in 2012 and Kamyar Samimi of Iran in 2017. In Mandza’s case, the Department of Homeland Security found GEO staff unprepared to deal with heart failure and at fault for waiting an hour after he complained of severe chest pains before calling an ambulance.
As of last week, members of Congress who toured the Aurora center say, the facility’s two top medical positions were vacant, and GEO had one psychiatrist on staff when it is supposed to have two. ICE doesn’t dispute that account.
The watchdog groups cited a report issued this spring by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) documenting “egregious” conditions at ICE facilities, including the Aurora facility, in 2018. They detailed accounts of Aurora detainees being denied essential medical or mental health care even though GEO staff was on notice about their specific needs.
One is a 39-year-old man with PTSD from South Sudan who grew up in the midst of the civil war and says he was orphaned when North Sudanese soldiers burned down his village. He hallucinates about people who had died or who had threatened him. According to one of the group’s letters, “GEO placed him solitary confinement in early 2018 for more than a month after an altercation with a corrections officer he said was violent towards him after he asked for a form to file a grievance against her.” In a legal declaration, the man reported that solitary confinement exacerbated his hallucinations:
“Being alone makes the voices worse. When I sleep, they come and disturb me. They say the same thing over and over again. They say they are going to kill me and my parents. I get confused about what to do and why they are talking to me. I don’t know how to get rid of them so that I cannot listen to them anymore. I feel very sad when I hear those voices. I am tired all the time and feel depressed… I was placed in segregation on February 9, 2018, and was there for over a month. This was a very hard time for me. I was alone, and the voices were bothering me all day and night. I was very scared.”
The American Immigration Council and the American Immigration Lawyers Association also cited the case of Patrick who – after being diagnosed with and treated for a traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety and seizure-, bi-polar- and post-traumatic stress disorders – was held at the Aurora facility from August 2018 until June 2019. Patrick, also from Sudan, had attempted suicide at least twice before, both times while being held in solitary confinement in prisons. From the Aurora detention center, he reported regularly receiving the wrong dosages of his medications to control his depression, anxiety and seizures. He also reported having no access to therapy. “As a result, his coping mechanisms to deal with stress deteriorated,” the groups wrote.
They report that GEO put Patrick under suicide watch for about a week when his lawyer says he tried to strangle himself using his clothes, then began ramming his head into a wall. After he was taken out of suicide watch, a mental health provider told him “that he would be sent to punitive segregation immediately following his time on suicide watch.” His immigration lawyer scrambled to find disability lawyers to pressure GEO to keep him out of solitary confinement and put him back in general population where he could be monitored more closely.
U.S. Rep. Crow has watchdogged the facility closely since taking office in January. Contacted about The Independent’s findings, he said in a statement Friday, “These reports are deeply disturbing and appear to be part of a larger pattern of behavior by ICE that continues today.
“We’ve repeatedly seen the facility fail to properly address the health and medical needs of detainees and just this month learned that there is only one psychologist on hand for over 1,200 individuals. ICE has operated in the shadows for too long and it is clear that more oversight is needed to protect the dignity and decency of all people.”
DeGette says reports about GEO “raise the broader issue of should we be having private companies running any kind of detention facilities at all?”
Drake, the psychiatrist in Durango, agrees.
“I have a concern about private jails in general because they have an incentive to fill their beds and maximize their resources to make a buck,” he says. He also has concerns about the use of “solitary confinement in any prison… that is not administered in a discrete, time limited fashion.”
Some former Aurora detainees say they chose to be placed in isolation to escape the chaos of the facility’s general population or avoid problems that could arise.
Idrissa Camara is one of them.
The 30-year-old from Guinea came to the U.S. at age 12 with his father, who was married to a U.S. citizen and became a permanent resident. His father died, and his stepmother hadn’t formally adopted him, so he had overstayed his visa from 2000 when, in 2007, he was charged for a $90 cocaine deal in Aurora. That charge landed him in the GEO facility for a year from 2011 to 2012 for deportation proceedings, but he could not be deported because of administrative issues on Guinea’s part, so he was released with an outstanding deportation order. He was detained again for nine months between July 2018 and May of this year so ICE could carry out the order from 2012.
His lawyer managed to win a hold on his deportation, and Camara – who works as an aide in a home for the disabled in Pueblo – is awaiting a hearing before an immigration judge.
He says he was diagnosed at age 16 with bipolar disorder. In 2012, during his first detention at the Aurora facility, he opted into solitary confinement because he had to stop taking Latuda, a medication that GEO told him was too expensive.
“They gave me the option of whether or not I wanted to be in general population or go to ad seg to (avoid) any issues that might come up in case I deteriorated emotionally. I was worried that if I didn’t do that, something could have happened and they would have blamed me,” he says.
As he tells it, his week and a half in isolation seemed like months. He never knew what time it was and couldn’t see himself in the stainless steel plate that GEO hung on the wall as an unbreakable substitute for a mirror. Some days, he says, he wouldn’t get the hour outside of his cell that ICE standards require.
“Things would come up that they decided (were) more important. Like a fight in another part of the facility, or paperwork,” he says.
He tried to sleep as much as possible to avoid marinating in what he calls “a lot of emotional doubt, anger, frustration and rejection because of not being a U.S. citizen.” When he was awake, he says, the sound of the vents reminded him of a boat engine, and he would hallucinate that he was on a ship – “put there because I was from a different part of the galaxy.”
“I felt like I wasn’t my own entity or person, that someone else had control of me and could do with me what they wanted. I was obsessed about the opening and closing of the doors, hoping someone was coming to talk to me about anything, just some human contact. But they just slid the food in the door and shut it back up. And I remember at times I was hysterical, I was shouting that I wasn’t an animal. I wasn’t certain what the distinguishing line between an animal and human being was.”
Camara recalls hearing “bangs on the doors, screaming, hysteria, people talking.
“I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but I could hear their screaming and the echoes of their screams, the painful cry of their souls. It was dark, really dark,” he says.
“It was actually bringing up thoughts of, like, ending things. I’m talking about suicide. I’ve faced challenges and struggles in my life before, but nothing like that. Nothing.”