The ACLU of Colorado sued the GEO Group today for what it alleges was the wrongful death of a Thornton man at the private prison company’s immigrant detention center in Aurora.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of Kamyar Samimi’s family names Jeffrey Peterson, the center’s only full-time physician, in addition to the private prison company. It accuses the company, Peterson and his medical team of what it calls “extreme mistreatment” of the 64-year old Iranian immigrant before his death in December 2017.
“We also hope to shine a light on the larger problems of immigration detention,” said ACLU of Colorado’s Legal Director Mark Silverstein.
GEO Group’s 33-year-old detention 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.
Samimi, a mechanic and father of three who had lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years after arriving as a student in 1976, became a legal permanent resident in 1978. He was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2017 in connection to a cocaine-possession conviction from 2005.
Once he was locked up, the facility cut off his doctor-prescribed methadone, which he had been taking for at least 25 years to treat his opioid addiction. The suit alleges that Peterson and GEO Group’s medical team did not properly monitor or treat his ensuing opioid withdrawal and failed to take action when his symptoms worsened, ultimately leading to his death two weeks later.
Pablo Paez, a GEO Group spokesperson, denied any wrongdoing.
“GEO strongly rejects these allegations. The Processing Centers we manage on behalf of ICE are top-rated by independent accreditation entities, including the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and provide high-quality residential care. We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment for everyone in our care.”
In addition to allegations of negligent medical care, the suit also accuses GEO Group and Peterson of discriminating against Samimi for having opioid-use disorder, a disability that is protected under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law barring government agencies from denying services to people with disabilities.
“It’s devastating,” Neda Samimi-Gomez, Samimi’s 26-year-old daughter, said in an ACLU press release. “We will never have more memories with my dad. When I have a family, my own child will never have memories of their grandfather. We never want this to happen to another family, which is why it’s been so important to have the ACLU take our father’s case. We want everyone to know what happened so that it never happens again.”
His family’s federal civil suit is seeking damages, in an amount to be determined at trial, and attorney’s fees.
The ACLU filed a previous lawsuit in April to obtain the review of Samimi’s death conducted by ICE, which found that the Aurora facility was in violation of “numerous ICE standards,” despite an internal investigation by GEO that showed no evidence of wrongdoing.
A report by the Department of Homeland Security in June also found the detention center has been violating detainee rights and other federal standards by denying outdoor recreation time, unnecessarily keeping detainees handcuffed and allowing only non-contact family visitation. And a September report by the ACLU of Colorado alleges at least eight other instances of improper medical care at the facility that led to injury or, in the case of Evalin-Ali Mandza in 2012, death. That report points out that since Samimi died, the facility has expanded from 1,000 to 1,500 immigrant detainees, with only one full-time physician.
Silverstein said one of the problems with GEO Group is that it is a closed institution, operating with little oversight because it is a private company, and Samimi’s death is the only reason documentation detailing its medical care became available.
“If Mr. Samimi was subjected to abysmal medical care and survived, we wouldn’t have these records,” he said.
The Aurora facility was the target of several protests this year, both outside the facility and at the home of its warden, Johnny Choate. Activists have decried mistreatment of detainees as well as the existence of the private detention center more generally. Some held signs and wore t-shirts reading “Close the concentration camps.”
An investigation by The Colorado Independent earlier this year found that GEO Group, with ICE’s approval, has held detainees in solitary confinement for as long as nine months in Aurora. Records show that from March 2013 through February 2017, the corporation reported 123 placements in its segregation cells, all for male detainees.
Several former detainees have spoken of having been denied prescriptions or treatment for medical and psychiatric conditions that pre-dated their confinement there – conditions that GEO Group’s staff knew about.
At the time The Independent’s story ran in August, GEO Group had only one psychologist assigned to the center’s then-1,200-detainee population.