Ask The Indy: What we know about the GEO Group and its Aurora ICE Processing Center

Readers have been asking about the private-prison giant and the immigrant detention center it runs in Colorado. We've got answers.

Protesters on July 12, 2019, lower the GEO Group's flag outside the ICE detention center that GEO owns and operates in Aurora. The facility and the company have been embroiled in nearly nonstop controversy for months. (Photo by Cullen Lobe)

It’s been a hot summer for GEO Group, the Florida-based company that owns and operates the Aurora ICE Processing Center. 

Hundreds of people protested outside the facility earlier this month, calling for it, among other immigrant detention centers, to be closed, arguing they are inhumane. Not long afterward, Colorado’s four Democratic congressional representatives toured the detention center. One, Rep. Jason Crow, has consistently criticized the facility for being medically understaffed, among other issues, and his office is now conducting weekly inspections.

Earlier this month, the Indy reported on GEO’s practice of putting people with mental illness in prolonged solitary confinement, which many, including UN officials and Colorado’s former Department of Corrections chief, say amounts to torture.

All this in the wake of the quarantine of detainees following cases of mumps and measles, and a U.S. Inspector General report that found numerous problems with the center’s living conditions. That report prompted Rep. Diana DeGette to call for an end to using government-contracted private companies to house detainees, something her Democratic colleagues all say they want. 

In the midst of all the tumult, Indy reader John McKiernan of southeast Denver sent us an Ask the Indy question wondering whether children are held at the Aurora Detention Center. The answer is no. McKiernan had follow-up questions, and other readers have used our Ask The Indy platform to inquire about GEO and the Aurora facility.

Among McKiernan’s questions: Under what federal, state and local jurisdictions does GEO fall? Who monitors to ensure compliance? What violations occurred in the past? Are there new problems or more frequent problems under the current “sad!-ministration”? (OK, so we know McKiernan’s politics.) 

We asked McKiernan what sparked his interest in GEO and he said he used to drive and bike by the center.

The people around me aren’t likely to have direct contact with the facility as ‘guest,’ staff, vendor or even visitor,” he said in an email, adding he has seen “intelligent people get involved in a heated argument over it.” 

If our reader comment section is any measure, we imagine that argument going on all over Colorado. So, below are our best answers, plus some background on the company and the facility: 

What is The GEO Group?

The Florida-based GEO Group, along with CoreCivic, are the country’s two largest private prison companies. GEO owns and/or runs 134 facilities (some idle) within the United States as well as overseas. Its 13 Colorado locations include Denver (though not for much longer), Aurora, Greeley, Craig, Eagle, Frisco, Littleton, Northglenn, Colorado Springs and Cañon City. Nearly all of its business in Colorado is in community corrections, like halfway houses.

GEO’s wholly owned subsidiary, BI Inc., provides electronic ankle monitoring services in Colorado and beyond, and it, too, has been the subject of local protests. Boulder recently cut ties with BI and it’s very likely Denver will do so when its contract with the provider expires in December.

GEO is publicly traded, and Colorado’s retirement fund, PERA, has a small stake in the company. 

In a letter to shareholders accompanying its 2018 annual report, chairman of the board, CEO and GEO founder George C. Zoley, said the company’s corrections and detention business unit managed an average daily population of more than 60,000 in its U.S. facilities in 2018.  The company’s revenue was $2.3 billion in 2018, more than 60% of which came from U.S. government contracts.

Why is GEO under fire?

Nationally, it has been swept up in the backlash against Trump’s hardline immigration policy, including the separation of children from families and horrific overcrowding at border detention facilities.

That’s having a bottom-line impact. The company’s Q1 SEC filing stated: “Public resistance to the use of public-private partnerships for correctional, detention and community-based facilities could result in our inability to obtain new contracts or the loss of existing contracts.”

Much of the controversy in Colorado revolves around the Aurora ICE Processing Center, and specifically around the treatment of detainees there. 

If you ask local ICE or GEO staff, they’ll tell you the concerns are dramatically overstated.

“We don’t like being called Nazis, being called these names by the press that are definitely not true,” said John Fabbricatore, acting ICE field director, during a media tour of the Aurora facility on Aug. 9. “I take it very seriously when people say we’re doing things wrong, that we’re running concentration camps. We provide professional services to everyone that we come in contact with. We make sure everyone that is here is taken care of.” 

But there is, at this point, substantial evidence to suggest that Aurora detainees are not always taken care of well. 

One high-profile example: Kamyar Samimi died in the Aurora facility in December of 2017, and a government review found that his death was the result of staff negligence.

Mohamed Dirshe, who was held in the Aurora facility from 2017 to 2018, is suing GEO Group for medical negligence after an assault he sustained last year, CPR News reported.

In early June, The Indy reported on the story of Miguel Angel Avila Arce, who said an officer in the facility slammed a door on his hand, breaking it along with his fingers. He said he was given inadequate medical care for the break, and called the experience among the worst in his life.

Also in June, the inspector general’s report stated that the Aurora facility is violating detainee rights and federal standards by denying outdoor recreation time, unnecessarily keeping some detainees handcuffed and allowing only non-contact family visitation. The report was quite damning — we’ll get into that below — but ICE staff downplayed it. 

“Were there things found that were wrong? Of course there were,” ICE’s Fabbricatore said. “This is a big facility.”

Detainees in the Aurora facility have also taken action against GEO Group and the facility for its sanitation policy. In February of 2018, a U.S Court of Appeals upheld detainees’ class-action suit against GEO. Detainees — 62,000 of whom are represented by the suit — claimed that they were forced to clean their housing units’ common areas and perform various other tasks for $1 a day. (If that wage shocks you, know that it’s fairly standard pay for labor by those detained or incarcerated. More on that here.)

A Boulder attorney representing the plaintiffs in that case, which is ongoing, told The Denver Post detainees “were forced to work under the threat of solitary confinement.”

Beyond coming under fire for their alleged treatment of inmates, GEO Group has also been criticized for the treatment of its own correctional officers, though those complaints do not focus on Colorado.

In 2018, GEO Group and its Central Arizona Correctional Facility had to pay $550,000 to settle a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Arizona Civil Rights Division of the Attorney General’s Office for a sexual harassment case.

A bit of background on the Aurora detention center

GEO was awarded the contract for the Aurora ICE Processing Center in December of 1986. At that point, the facility held approximately 150 detainees on behalf of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Services, now known as ICE. 

Since then, the facility has grown significantly. What was once a facility for 150 detainees now has the capacity for 1,500. The population is mostly male; as of last week, the facility held 161 women detainees.

Staff reports that about 60% of detainees are from Latin America, but the remaining population is quite diverse, with more than 60 nationalities represented inside the facility. The average stay is 55 days, staff says.

The makeup of this population has shifted dramatically in the last year. As of summer 2018, staff says, 85% of people in the Aurora detention center were convicted criminals. (That stat counts decades-old convictions for low-level crimes, staff says.) Today, Fabbricatore told reporters, about two-thirds of the center’s population are asylum seekers brought up from the border.

Administrators say that those who are brought to the center under final deportation orders are deported in an average of eight days, down from an average of 12 days a year ago.

How does GEO Group respond to criticism?

In short: by claiming that they’re performing adequately, and in some cases above required standards, in Aurora and beyond.

In response to the inspector general report in June, GEO told The Indy: 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.”

Most recently, amidst movement to force reform in the Aurora facility, the GEO Group told The Indy that claims made by politicians and activists are “severely misinformed and based on a false narrative about our role (as) a government services provider.”

“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,” GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said in a statement.

We did visit the Aurora facility. Here’s what we saw.

The detention center in Aurora looks a lot like other jails and prisons. It’s located in an industrial area that few would pass by unless they had a reason to be there. It’s got nondescript hallways and cell blocks that each house a few dozen people who share a common area with television and phones they can pay to use. (We’d can’t show you pictures, because ICE barred reporters from photographing the inside of the facility during last week’s tour.)

The kitchen smells like an elementary school cafeteria, staffed by detainees earning next-to-nothing for their services. 

There’s a small computer lab where detainees can access legal databases and textbooks. 

There’s also an area for solitary confinement, referred to as “Restricted Housing Units.” (The Indy recently published a deep dive on this.) These units were not included when ICE and GEO hosted reporters for a tour.

Detainees in Aurora are denied outdoor access. The inspector general’s report identified this as one of a few big problems at the facility. GEO and ICE both dispute the claim, noting that the recreation areas, which include workout equipment and basketball hoops, have partial chain-link ceilings, which allow some air and sunlight in.

Detainees are also denied in-person visits with family and friends, except in rare cases. The vast majority of visits take place with partitions separating detainees from their loved ones, even though, as the inspector general noted, the facility does have space to start allowing what GEO refers to as “contact” visits, in which people interact with no physical barrier.

What about reforms?

The GEO facility operates under the Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), and ICE claims the facility meets and even exceeds these standards in some cases. But as many advocates and current and former detainees will argue, the standards can be fairly low.

For example, GEO is actually providing more outdoor space to detainees than they’re required to by the PBNDS. Their “outdoor” areas have four walls and a half-open ceiling — but that’s still compliant with the standards.

Another example: the facility is frequently criticized for having only one full-time medical doctor on staff, but that, too, is in line with standards.

It’s not always been clear where the buck stops with this facility. The inspector general’s report criticized a number of practices there, but did not require any changes, so much as suggest them. ICE says it’s considering allowing more in-person visitation and greater outdoor access, but little has been done on that front thus far, and there doesn’t appear to be anyone forcing the changes.

But in the Trump era, amid outrage over family separation and severe treatment of migrants at the border and inland, there’s been a growing movement to force some greater oversight at the facility. Crow, the Aurora congressman, has been at the center of those efforts. He and Boulder Rep. Joe Neguse, also a Democrat, have requested a special House Judiciary Committee hearing about the facility, though that’s not happened yet.

When the state legislature convenes in January, several officials are expected to attempt bills to increase oversight and raise standards. State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, an Adams County Democrat, said she may introduce a bill to require more regular inspections of health and sanitation at the facility.

The Indy recently wrote about the various ways Benavidez, Crow and other Colorado officials are working to force change.

The Colorado Independent is a statewide online news source operating in a time when spin is plentiful, but factual, fair and unflinching news in the public interest is all too rare. Our award-winning team of veteran investigative and explanatory reporters and news columnists aims to amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard, shine light on the relationships between people, power and policy, and hold public officials to account. We strive to report the news with context, social conscience, and soul, and to give Coloradans the insight they need to promote conversation, understanding and progress in this square, swing state we call home.

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