"We already know that GEO leadership is unwilling to provide adequate health care to its detainees. An outbreak of this magnitude proves they are also unable to protect their employees," says Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz. "Combined with detainee numbers, it's clear that ICE should grant humanitarian release to those held within the facility to prevent further spread and protect the health and safety of all involved."
The latest outbreak numbers indicate a massive increase in COVID cases among staffers; until now, fewer than fifty GEO staffers in Aurora had tested positive for COVID-19 over the entire course of the pandemic.
The latest positive test results for staffers come as the Aurora facility, which is run by GEO Group, a private prison company, through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is dealing with a COVID outbreak among detainees. According to the most recent inspection report from Congressman Jason Crow's office, there were nineteen new COVID cases among detainees last week, bringing the total number of detainee cases over the course of the pandemic to 136.
In recent weeks, the number of new COVID cases in the state has been rising quickly every week. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's latest stats indicate that new case counts are, on average, more than seven times higher than they were during the first wave of COVID-19.
"I think that this [GEO staff] outbreak is the result of two factors," says Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious-disease doctor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center who has testified in lawsuits filed against GEO Group and ICE. "A, the third wave of COVID-19 community-based transmission; and B, the lack of preparedness needed to protect detainees during this pandemic. The latter factor is important to emphasize because it reveals the inability of detainees to shield from the pandemic. They just don't care about detainees."
Immigration attorneys and local activists have lobbied for ICE to release as many detainees as possible in light of the COVID risks in congregate settings. As of November 13, there were 280 ICE detainees at the Aurora facility, well below the facility's capacity of 1,532.
"Did they really need to be detaining 1,500 people if right now there’s only 300?" asks Laura Lunn, an attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network who represents ICE detainees in Colorado. "There isn't really a need for people to sit in a prison in immigration custody."
Lunn hopes to see even more releases under President-elect Joe Biden's administration. "From my perspective, the initial focus should be on vulnerable populations," Lunn adds. "Those who are high-risk or at risk of getting very sick from the virus should be released."