The policy of the immigrant detention facility in Aurora regarding video recording has been clear for some time now: No cameras allowed.
GEO Group, the private prison company that runs the detention center through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made that policy abundantly clear in a current lawsuit regarding alleged forced labor at the Aurora facility. Lawyers representing former and current detainees suing the center would not be allowed to record their inspection of it, GEO Group stated.
But in August, GEO and ICE invited television news cameras inside for a tour.
"It’s significant that GEO decided to completely open up access to the detention center in Aurora, despite the fact that they were denying access as part of our litigation for quite some time," says Hans Meyer, one of over a dozen attorneys representing the detainees in the suit. "It speaks to quite a lot of mixed motives for GEO. They’re doing damage control in the court of public opinion."
Denver-based Meyer and the other lawyers on the case have been battling GEO Group in court since October 2014. The original complaint about forced labor was filed on behalf of nine then-current detainees of the facility.
Lawyers allege that GEO Group is violating state law against "unjust enrichment" by paying detainees just one dollar per day for work at the facility, and that detainees are victims of forced labor because they're required to clean living quarters and common areas, and are threatened with solitary confinement if they fail to do so. A third claim, that GEO Group was violating Colorado minimum-wage law, was dismissed by John Kane, the federal judge presiding over the case in the District Court of Colorado.
GEO argues that federal law stipulates that it can pay those who "volunteer in a work program" one dollar per day and that detainees cleaning their living quarters and common spaces are simply keeping their areas clean. ICE regulations state that "the compensation must be at least $1.00 (USD) per day" for detainees.
In February 2017, Kane granted a motion to certify the class for the lawsuit, meaning that anyone from October 2004 up to the present who had either worked for one dollar per day or had been subject to the alleged forced labor for cleaning common spaces and living quarters could be part of the suit.
GEO appealed, writing in a March 2017 court filing that certifying the class would be a "potentially catastrophic risk to GEO’s ability to honor its contracts with the federal government." That appeal was denied, meaning that the original list of nine plaintiffs could expand to include thousands of former and current detainees of the facility.
More recently, the sticking point between the two sides has been over video recording. GEO Group did not respond to a request for comment for this article. But ICE pointed to its regulations on media tours of the facility, which state that permission from the field office director and warden is required before media can film inside a facility.
The attorneys representing the class want to be able to record an inspection of the facility so they can use the footage to bolster their arguments. In particular, they want to film living and common areas so they can demonstrate that detainees are required to clean more than what's considered reasonable under federal regulations. They also want to film anywhere that detainees may have worked for a dollar per day, like the kitchen and laundry room. But both ICE and GEO have pushed back strongly against allowing video recording of any kind, even if the videos blur images of individuals or remain confidential.
"Photography and video-recording presents a significant risk to operational security, including risk of harm to detainees, facility staff, and the public, as it will allow viewers to potentially exploit any perceived weaknesses in operation security," Denver ICE field office director John Fabbricatore wrote in a June 2019 letter to the warden of the facility, Johnny Choate. "Given the serious risk of harm to detainees, facility staff, and the general public, ICE believes that any benefit of photography and video-recording is outweighed by the security concerns outlined above."
In that same letter, Fabbricatore argued that it wouldn't matter if the plaintiffs' lawyers blurred the faces of detainees or staff depicted in the videos. "Given the state of current technology, individuals and computers are able to reverse obfuscation of faces and images. As a result, ICE does not believe that the blurring of photographs of detainees or ICE staff mitigates these privacy concerns."
That same month, Dawn Ceja, who serves as assistant warden at the facility, provided a statement to the court that laid out her reasoning as to why video recording presents a security risk for the facility, its staff and detainees, and notes that allowing cameras inside is unprecedented. "Specific to videography, I am not aware of any instance where GEO has authorized third party video recording during the length of my employment," Ceja wrote, noting that she's been on staff at the facility since 1995.
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But just two months after Fabbricatore and Ceja wrote the letters, CBS4 and Fox31 published news segments showing footage they filmed inside the facility. Together, the videos showed the processing rooms where detainees are first registered and held at the facility, living quarters for both men and women, exercise areas, the law library, the medical facility and the kitchen. Shots that included faces of detainees or staff members were filmed out of focus.
Although there haven't been any motions or orders in the case for the past few weeks, a ruling on the fight over allowing video should come sometime this fall, Meyer says. In the meantime, he credits those who have been pushing for the immigrant detention facility to become more accessible to the public as a reason for this about-face: "This is an example of where public pressure and political pressure has created a change in transparency."
Along with various calls for increased accountability at the facility by local members of Congress, such as Jason Crow and Joe Neguse, GEO Group is also facing pressure from one of the most high-profile politicians in the country. Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the top-polling Democratic presidential candidates, wrote a letter in July to Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, asking his agency to look into whether GEO Group is violating federal securities laws in regard to investor disclosure. Warren wrote that GEO Group has made private statements to government officials and publicly expressed in court that the class-action lawsuit could hurt its bottom line while telling investors that it doesn't expect the lawsuit "to have a material adverse effect on its financial condition, results of operations or cash flows."
The State of Washington is also suing GEO Group over its "voluntary work program" at an immigrant detention facility there.