The past year hasn't been pleasant for the immigrant detention facility in Aurora. News articles have focused on the facility's shortcomings on issues ranging from health care to living conditions, and lawmakers have advocated for more oversight of the facility.
But these articles and narratives don't tell the whole story, argue representatives of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group, a private prison company that runs the Aurora facility through a contract with ICE. ICE and GEO Group say they are doing good and important work to make sure detainees at the facility are treated humanely.
In that spirit, ICE and GEO hosted over a dozen local and national reporters for a tour of the facility on August 9. Westword toured the facility in early 2019. But this time around, ICE officials were more inclined to respond to criticism the facility has faced in recent months.
"Truth and clarity, that is why we’re doing what we’re doing. We want to be out in front of this," said Denver ICE field office director John Fabbricatore.
Still, reporters were expected to abide by rules that are not necessarily required for tours of prisons or jails. Cameras and recording devices of any kind were forbidden on the tour, and reporters were not allowed to speak to detainees.
Even with these restrictions, the tour did offer some important insight into the facility.
The law library, which detainees can use as they try to defend themselves in immigration court, has materials in both English and Spanish, but not other languages. Approximately 60 percent of detainees at the facility hail from Latin American countries.
ICE and GEO officials also took reporters to one of the recreation areas, which has an open-air caged roof that some argue violates federal rules because it's not a true outdoor space. A June 2019 report from the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General noted that investigators spoke with detainees who said they wanted "true outdoor recreation for the fresh air, sunshine and exercise, and for playing soccer with their fellow detainees." ICE denies that the rec center violates federal standards, arguing that it actually exceeds what's mandated by law.
The report also claimed that staff at the facility were violating government standards by handcuffing all detainees in solitary confinement when they were being moved outside of their cells. The report noted that "placement in disciplinary segregation alone does not constitute a valid basis for using restraints," which ICE has said it agrees with and will fix. The Colorado Independent recently published a lengthy investigation about solitary confinement at the Aurora facility, including just how mentally anguishing isolation can be for detainees.
At the time of the tour, twelve individuals were living in "restricted housing," which is what ICE calls solitary confinement.
"We try not to use restrictive housing in general. It’s very manpower-intensive," Fabbricatore said.
The Inspector General report also found that during the time of its inspection in 2018, the facility did not allow in-person visits with detainees. ICE says it now allows such visits on a case-by-case basis.
"We do think it’s important that people have contact visits. But it’s very intensive, so we need to make sure that we do it right. We need to make sure that we hire additional staff for contact visits. When we have a contact visit, there’s a chance for an introduction of contraband into the facility," Fabbricatore said. "The introduction of drugs into the facility is something that we don’t want to have happen."
Westword has previously spoken with the lawyer for a female transgender detainee who was housed with the facility's male population. The detainee's lawyer alleged that her client was subjected to sexual harassment while living in the male dormitory and struggled for months to access hormone treatment.
During the tour, Fabbricatore said that in recent weeks, ICE has begun housing trans detainees in a separate section of the facility so they can live together.
"We are looking at the trans population and trying to provide better care and needs to their population. So we’re trying to keep them housed together where they feel more comfortable, trying to allow more mental health benefits and anything else that they need, [including the] administration of hormones," Fabbricatore said, noting that the facility is working with the Denver Health LGBTQ Center for Excellence to get advice on working with trans detainees. "We’ve gone out to them to look at having them help us with this community, help us with being able to get the right amount of hormones and the things that they need as a population."
ICE and GEO officials also took reporters to the medical care area. ICE said it spends $267 million per year on medical care for its detainees. But that doesn't always translate to proper care.
A May 2018 review of Aurora detainee Kamyar Samimi's death showed that medical staff made multiple significant errors in treating Samimi. In the question-and-answer period after the tour, Westword asked ICE officials about lessons learned from Samimi's death.
“We’re not going to talk about Mr. Samimi because that’s a current lawsuit," said ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock. The ACLU of Colorado and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center are suing ICE over the release of records associated with Samimi's death.
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On Monday, August 12, the American Friends Service Committee held a press conference outside the detention facility, during which detainees speaking by phone raised issues with their medical care. But about half an hour into the press conference, the call from inside the detention facility ended because it was too expensive to continue, according to Jennifer Piper of the AFSC. On the media tour, none of the ICE or GEO employees, including the facility's warden, knew how much a phone call costs for detainees.
In recent months, Colorado lawmakers have pushed for more oversight of the facility. Congressman Jason Crow's office is inspecting the facility on a weekly basis, and Congressman Joe Neguse is pushing for a congressional oversight hearing to look into GEO Group and its immigration detention facilities across the country.
The Aurora facility's population has more than doubled since the center added an annex in January. ICE officials told the tour group that a year ago, approximately 525 ICE detainees were housed at the facility; on August 9, that number was 1,232.
Following the tour, Fabbricatore told reporters that they should expect more opportunities to visit the facility. "If there’s something to be said and there’s something for you to see, I want you to be able to see it, and I want to be able to talk to you," he said.