From August 20 to August 30, the number of COVID-19 cases at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, which is run by private prison company GEO Group, jumped from 24 to 34, the biggest rise in such a short period of time for the center.
"I'm not surprised to hear it, sadly. This is exactly what we and public-health officials have been warning about," says Liz Jordan, an attorney with the Denver-based Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center.
According to Alethea Smock, a local ICE spokesperson, "ICE may transfer detainees within its detention network based on available resources and the needs of the agency. The Aurora Contract Detention Facility, Colorado, received detainees from other states based on the needs of the agency. In 2020, because of COVID-19, these operational demands have included transfers to spread out ICE detainees across the ICE detention network to facilitate social distancing."
Can the increase in positive cases be traced to detainees coming from other facilities? "Yes," Smock responds.
"We think that transfers should really be halted unless they're absolutely necessary," Jordan says. "What's the point of spreading everybody out if you're going to be introducing new points of infection?"
Jordan is part of a group of attorneys currently suing ICE in a class-action lawsuit that seeks to protect medically vulnerable detainees from COVID-19. That litigation has already resulted in the release of some detainees from the Aurora detention facility.
As part of the lawsuit, attorneys submitted a declaration from Homer Venters, a medical doctor with expertise in health care in correctional settings. "Transferring large numbers of detained people between facilities to cohort symptomatic and asymptomatic people will increase the spread of COVID-19 infection throughout geographic areas," he stated.
Congressman Jason Crow, whose district includes the Aurora detention facility, also disapproves of the transferring.
“Detention centers are a tinderbox for disease spread, especially a disease as contagious as COVID-19. The decision to transfer new individuals to the facility was a known risk, and one ICE never should’ve taken. Four months ago, I called on ICE to stop the transfer of detainees because we knew it would spread the virus," Crow says.
The facility, which has a capacity of 1,532, currently houses 309 ICE detainees, according to a recent report from Crow's office. The U.S. Marshals also house, on average, fifty or so detainees at the facility on any given day. The same Crow report shows that a total of eighteen employees at the Aurora facility have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.
In June, ICE began offering COVID-19 tests to all of its detainees at the Aurora facility, and the number of confirmed cases quickly increased from twelve to sixteen. About a month later, that number had only risen by one. A month after that, on August 20, the total sat at 24. Within ten days, it then jumped by another ten.
ICE officials note that all detainees are now tested for COVID-19 on arrival at the Aurora facility and then are isolated and monitored for two weeks. As of September 1, the number of confirmed cases at the facility throughout the pandemic was 37, with 19 "currently under isolation or monitoring," according to the ICE website. Prior to August 30, the high for detainees under isolation or monitoring was eight.
Compared to some other ICE detention facilities, the Aurora facility has not seen a massive outbreak. At detention facilities in Atlanta and Phoenix, for example, hundreds of detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.
As detainees are moved through the system, the virus can move, too. Jordan points to a "lack of universal ongoing testing regimes" at the ICE facilities. And in his statement, Venters said that he believed that successfully transferring detainees from one facility to another "requires far more measures than ICE implements and should be ceased."