There's Been Another Chicken Pox Outbreak at Immigrant Detention Facility

The Denver Contract Detention Facility, ICE's detention center in Aurora, is managed by the GEO Group.
Anthony Camera
The Denver Contract Detention Facility, ICE's detention center in Aurora, is managed by the GEO Group.
There has been another chicken pox outbreak at the immigrant detention center in Aurora, the second in just three months. A detainee "pod," which is a prison housing unit consisting of individual cells, was quarantined for weeks after an outbreak in October.

Now two pods have been quarantined for 21 days because of the virus, said GEO Group spokesman Pablo Paez in an email. Paez did not answer additional questions about why a second outbreak had occurred, or what the facility, which is managed by private prison company GEO Group through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was doing to prevent future outbreaks.

But today, January 31, I met a detainee at the facility who described what it was like being under quarantine during last fall's outbreak. From behind a glass partition in the center's visitor room, Miguel Angel, 34, described how guards one day told his pod, which housed 77 detainees, that they couldn't leave their housing unit, offering no explanation. “We had no idea what was going on,” Angel recalls. "Guards just told us that we had to wait.”

They wound up waiting for a few days, during which they couldn't access the recreation yard, see visitors, consult face-to-face with lawyers, or even attend their immigration hearings. About a week in, the detainees finally learned that they were under a medical quarantine because of a possible chicken pox outbreak, Angel says. The potentially sick individuals had been removed from the housing unit before it was locked down. And weeks into the quarantine, a doctor still had not visited the pod.

Exasperated, Angel and about sixty other detainees wrote letters to ICE and the GEO Group demanding answers — and to see a doctor. Here's the letter:

It has been two weeks now that we have been in quarantine and not one doctor has been sent to this pod to offer medical treatment for the chicken pox. The first three people that were infected have been treated, cured and were switched over to a different pod, and are now living their normal process. But we have no visits, deportations, and our court [hearings] are being delayed.

They won't exchange our blankets, give haircuts, and we are prohibited from having rec time in the yard. We are being exposed to dangerous medical conditions living like this, causing depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, and conditions that could be fatal.

The most difficult part is the court dates being rescheduled. Many of us have already had chicken pox or been vaccinated. Our immigration process is being delayed because this outbreak wasn't properly handled from the start, and it's not fair. It feels like medical resources don't want to be used on us because we don't deserve it. We are all in desperate need of help.

Meanwhile, he saw firsthand how the lockdown put some detainees at greater medical risk since they didn't have regular access to a medical staff. One young man, who was complaining of a fever and had lost his appetite, asked guards to take him to a doctor. The guards stuck the man in his cell, believing that he had chicken pox, according to Angel. But then he collapsed, and guards had to rush in and do CPR to resuscitate him. "His heart had stopped briefly," Angel claims. After CPR, the man was transferred out of the pod, he remembers. 

Either that episode or the letters finally got GEO Group's attention. A doctor finally visited the pod, dressed in a full-body hazmat suit “looking like an astronaut,” says Angel.

click to enlarge Last October, immigrant-rights advocates, including Arturo Hernandez Garcia, spoke out about the chicken pox quarantine. - CHRIS WALKER
Last October, immigrant-rights advocates, including Arturo Hernandez Garcia, spoke out about the chicken pox quarantine.
Chris Walker
Some of the information that Angel provided about October's outbreak (at least the number of individuals who were quarantined) runs counter to what ICE had told media outlets, including Westword, at the time. “Of the 77 detainees who were tested, medical staff diagnosed three detainees with varicella; seven others had low immunity and therefore possessed increased risk factors of contracting the disease; all ten were quarantined at the facility,” spokesman Carl Rusnok said in a statement. “The Aurora medical staff continues to provide high-level care to all those affected, while at the same time continuing to serve the medical needs of the entire facility population.”

ICE Field Officer for Denver, Jeffrey Lynch, provided the following statement about the latest quarantine: "“With the recent influx of migrants coming from the southern border, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has confirmed two new cases of varicella at our Denver Contract Detention Facility. Medical personnel are credited with reducing the further infection of detainees by their quick reaction to quarantine everyone who may have been inadvertently exposed to stop the spread of the disease. Each detainee receives a medical examination upon arrival at the facility to check for potential signs of illness, however ICE has no way of knowing what viruses a person may have been exposed to prior to entering the facility. Varicella is highly contagious, easily contracted by nearby people and difficult to detect until visible symptoms appear. ICE and the medical professionals employed by GEO took the necessary steps to quickly isolate the exposed detainees, provide proper medical care and prevent further spread of the disease. Preventative steps included education, early recognition, and following the guidelines established by the CDC and Immigration Health Services Corps (IHSC). We strive to ensure people in our care are treated with compassion and we work to get them back to health as quickly as possible while mitigating the spread of this and all diseases.”

Angel says he feels for fellow detainees who are locked up in the two affected pods. Asked why he believes this has happened a second time, he says, “It's because our lives don't matter to them. We could die in here and there's nothing we can do."

Update, February 1, 4:15 p.m.: We've included a statement from ICE Field Officer for Denver, Jeffrey Lynch.