Guest Post: GEO and ICE could be building Colorado’s most dangerous COVID-19 reservoir

The GEO Group-run Aurora Processing Center in Aurora. (Photo by Susan Greene)

As of Monday afternoon, March 16, Colorado had 160 cases of COVID-19 and experienced its first related death three days earlier. The state’s testing capacity is maxed out, but has entirely missed one population: detainees. Detention facilities are recognized incubators for infectious diseases, and in order to “flatten the curve” and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States urgently needs to decrease our incarcerated population. 

We need court intervention to release convicted non-violent offenders, but one population could and should be released swiftly: asylum seekers and immigrants in the GEO-owned ICE detention facility in Aurora.

The GEO ICE Detention facility in Aurora is particularly ill-equipped to control COVID-19 spread. We know this because the office of U.S. Rep. Jason Crow (CO-6) has set up regular visits to the facility and files public reports. The most recent report, from Feb. 24, includes a question: “Number of detainees that received an initial health screening?” GEO’s answer? “unknown.” At that time, two cohorts were under quarantine, representing 138 people, or over 24 percent of detainees. One cohort was quarantined for mumps and another for flu. We can only hope it was the actual flu and not COVID-19.

GEO’s inability to prevent disease spread poses a risk — not only to the detainees —but also to the general public. To understand the present risk, public authorities should look at the history of tuberculosis (TB) in prisons. According to the World Health Organization, the level of TB in prisons is estimated to be 100 times that of the general population, and that prison transmission is directly linked to the rise of multi-drug resistant TB. The WHO also reports that detention facilities are TB reservoirs, “pumping the disease into the civilian community through staff, visitors and inadequately treated former inmates. TB does not respect prison walls.” In recent years, multi-drug resistant TB has evolved into a new, extensively drug resistant (XDR) strain, which, until last year, had no FDA approved cure

COVID-19 is deadlier than TB. Two strains are known already, but at this point we only know how to treat the symptoms, not the illness. The only clear guidance the medical community has issued to date is that we must not give it an environment to evolve and spread. Epidemiologists are unanimous in advocating for strict hygiene measures and social distancing. The longer people remain in detention, the higher the risk they may bring a stronger version of COVID-19 with them into the general population, just has been the case with TB. 

Some policymakers have proposed reducing interactions between outsiders and detainees to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 to detainees. Colorado’s Department of Corrections has suspended in-person visits and family reunification events in order to prevent the introduction of COVID-19, but that won’t prevent employees from introducing the virus.

This is not a solution. We know that one superspreader was asymptomatic as he traveled multiple countries. Prison staff can continue to jeopardize the safety of detainees and broader society as immigrants remain locked in unsafe spaces. 

Instead, cash bonds should be lowered or eliminated for ICE detainees and across all detention systems, from asylum seekers in ICE detention facilities to non-violent offenders at all levels. Early release should be expedited for anyone currently eligible, and efforts should be undertaken to consider broadening eligibility. Failing to do so is inhumane, because we know from decades of epidemiological evidence that detention facilities incubate infectious diseases. Failing to decrease our detainee population is also a threat to the rest of our population.

COVID-19 is a pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It requires a new playbook, and decreasing the populations of all detention facilities should be at the top of the list. Lowering or eliminating cash bonds for asylum seekers at the Aurora ICE facility is a small step in the right direction.

The Colorado Independent occasionally runs guest posts from government officials, local experts and concerned citizens on a variety of topics. These posts are meant to provide diverse perspectives and do not represent the views of The Independent. To pitch a guest post, please contact tips@coloradoindependent.com or visit our submission page.

Dr. Kendyl Salcito has a PhD in Epidemiology from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel Switzerland. She serves as Executive Director of NomoGaia and is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Steven Leach and Dr. Salcito are co-directors of Truman National Security Project’s Colorado Chapter. Views expressed are their own.
Steven Leach has volunteered in detention facilities in South Africa and the United States, and is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. Leach and Dr. Salcito are co-directors of Truman National Security Project’s Colorado Chapter. Views expressed are their own.

7 COMMENTS

  1. If true,,, close it and ship all inside to their home countries now. Lethal force is in order at the border. Put the word out if you try to cross you will be shot. No American life is worth the risk. Illegal’s kill far too many American’s ..

    • Red hat or blue hat or in your case ass hat.. When and if this overwhelms third world public health systems south of the border the flood will be massive. and they must be stopped. Your solution?
      I’m 150 mi north of the Rio Grande sector on 12 acres with my “Fetish” and 10000 rounds.,( Not far from your buddy Littwin,) where the majority OTM’s are caught including 300+ Chinese nationals last report. Those are the #’s apprehended how many got through?
      I understand the the US military has sonic and microwave perimeter defense weapons..I don’t know for sure..but I have a feeling we gonna’ find out. you willing to risk it? I suggest you come on down to the front lines and work at a detention facility. Look forward to hearing your report

      • Hey as one of our more stable Resident Red Hats, can I ask you something?

        What would you like to see your president do right now that he currently isn’t?

        • I just don’t know. You and Littwin are the resident know it all’s. This is something I’ve never seen. in my 70 years. My personal wealth has been wiped out except real estate holdings and metals due to the Dow tumble.
          I do not have a taxpayer funded pension like PERA as I suspect you and Littwin do..which may be bankrupt soon due to the market also. You mock anyone that does not think the way you do, phrases you use such as “Religious Fairy tales ” Religious Bigot” ETC I guarantee one damn thing if this thing get’s you you’ll be praying to something.. FSB Ripcord July 1970 (Read about it) is the closest I want to come to dying right now and if it means closing the borders so be it.. Clarify “Stable” I’m guessing unstable is anyone that disagree’s with you correct?

          Peace..

          • I would hold on to your metals for a minute. Real estate will be a buyer’s market in certain areas in 12-18 months especially commercial.

            I’m a behavioral neuroscientist. People will write books about how America behaves during this time period. Think about how someone would write your story.

            With that in mind, either someone’s behavior is bigoted or not. Religion just happens to be an antecedent….a stimulus that sets the stage for the behavior. If something causes bigoted behavior, should it not be met with scorn?

  2. Yeah, they should probably be sent home. It is time to take care of our own. I am tired of people not respecting the borders, or laws.

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