In a big-box building painted blue and gray, not unlike a Walmart, the private prison company GEO Group houses as many as 1,500 detained immigrants at a time in Aurora. Most people don't even know the building — which sits just a block off busy Peoria Street — is there.
What happens inside that big box is largely a mystery. GEO Group is a private company and gets to evade many of the transparency requirements that a government agency would have to follow. What is well-documented — thanks to a pending class action lawsuit — is that the facility has encouraged detainees to perform duties like cleaning and cooking for $1 a day, potentially violating labor laws and wage requirements. Last year, the ACLU reported that some of its Iraqi clients were being harassed and intimidated by guards in an attempt to make them self-deport. And then there are the two individuals who have died at the Aurora detention center during the last six years: a 64-year-old man as recently as last December, and a 46-year-old man in 2012 who probably could have been saved from a heart attack had the staff known how to administer an EKG test or called an ambulance earlier once a medical emergency ensued.
Now more allegations of maltreatment are coming to light. This time, the alleged abuses concern medical and mental heath services inside the facility. On Monday, June 4, the American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a detailed complaint to the federal government that urges DHS’s Office of the Inspector General and/or its Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to open an investigation into abuse at the GEO Group-run center in Aurora.
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Along with citing the two recent deaths, the complaint includes the testimonials of seven current and former detainees (who go by pseudonyms in the report to protect their identities).
They include “Abdo” from South Sudan, who was diagnosed with PTSD after fleeing a brutal civil war and refugee camp. He came to the United States seeking asylum status, but while he was awaiting hearings and being held at the Aurora detention center, he was placed in solitary confinement, which exacerbated his PTSD and induced psychosis.
“Being alone makes the voices worse. When I sleep, they come and disturb me. They say the same thing over and over again,” he said in the complaint. “They say they are going to kill me and my parents. I get confused about what to do and why they are talking to me. I don’t know how to get rid of them so that I cannot listen to them anymore."
“Claude,” a 24-year-old man from Haiti who was severely beaten in his native country for being gay, nearly lost his eyesight because of repeated blows to his head. He is also seeking asylum in the United States, and as he awaited immigration hearings in Aurora for six months, GEO Group allegedly refused to address his worsening eyesight. Only once he was released on parole could he get treatment, by which point he was nearly blind.
The complaint also lists “Miguel,” a 28-year-old from Mexico who suffers from hemophilia A, a serious medical condition that causes chronic pain and bleeding. He’d been accepted into a medical trial at the University of Colorado and was receiving medication but eventually landed in the Aurora detention facility, where he was reportedly denied access to regular medication.
“I frequently bleed internally from my knees, elbows, and ankles, and a slight injury can cause severe bleeding,” Miguel told the report’s authors. “I was also not able to sleep the night before my hearing. I felt very anxious and tired during the hearing, and had difficulty concentrating.”
Additional testimonials include a man with intense pain in his testicles, which had swelled “to the size of a handball," but only received ibuprofen; a pregnant woman whose chest pain was belatedly diagnosed as tuberculosis; and another man who wasn’t receiving enough medicinal lotion to keep his skin from peeling due to a congenital skin condition.
The report’s authors lay out legal and moral reasons why these alleged acts need to be investigated by the government: “The individuals in immigration detention include noncitizens being held in civil custody while they pursue immigration claims, including asylum, or awaiting deportation due to a violation of immigration law. They are not in criminal custody, and their custody cannot be punitive in nature,” the complaint notes. “The stories shared in this complaint illustrate the government’s longstanding and systemic failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care to individuals detained in the Aurora facility.”
The complaint also indicates that neither ICE nor GEO Group have codified public guidelines that outline treatment of detainees.
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“The stakes could not be higher for the detainees at Aurora and elsewhere,” says Katie Shepherd, National Advocacy Counsel with the Immigration Justice Campaign, a joint initiative between the American Immigration Council and AILA. “Detainees’ lives are literally in the hands of the detention center staff and health providers at these detention facilities. ICE and GEO Group have repeatedly been put on notice of the grave health concerns raised by individuals detained in Aurora. Yet reports of woefully inadequate care continue to mount. These reports demonstrate that the government is willfully and systematically breaking the law by failing to provide appropriate medical and mental health care to detained immigrants, and in so doing, is severely hindering their access to a meaningful day in court.”
At the end of the complaint, the authors urge a number of action steps, including an independent investigation by DHS, increased access to outside medical and mental health treatment for detainees, and codifying rules around detainee treatment.
Shepherd, the representative from the Immigration Justice Campaign, told Westword that two offices within DHS — but not ICE — have confirmed receipt of the complaint, but it's largely within their discretion whether they choose to launch an investigation. But Shepherd hopes the complaint gains traction. "We feel that the systemic lack of adequate medical and mental care in Aurora that is documented in the complaint is so egregious that it absolutely merits a full investigation," she says.
GEO Group has previously told us that "the Aurora, Colorado, facility has a longstanding record of providing highly rated services in a safe, secure and humane residential environment while treating all those entrusted to our care with the respect and dignity they deserve."