Danielle Jefferis, a civil-rights attorney representing one of the participating detainees pro-bono for Novo Legal Group, says they want to draw attention to conditions at the facility and get more answers about the quarantine.
"The hunger strike is a message from these men to all of us outside the facility — and to our government — that the conditions inside GEO are not humane and that it's not okay to keep people locked down for weeks on end with no communication," Jefferis says. "Their demands are inherently reasonable: lift or shorten the quarantine so they can go to their court hearings, go outside the pod, see their families — or at minimum, someone from the medical staff could come and talk to them to explain the situation."
The quarantine was supposed to end at the start of March but was extended to the 27th without explanation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement representatives couldn't immediately tell us why the quarantine was extended but said that another confirmed case of mumps might have been identified prior to the quarantine's end. The private prison company GEO Group operates the facility through a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Homero Mendoza, deputy director of the Denver ICE field office, says the agency defines a hunger strike as nine consecutive missed meals. "If somebody missed their breakfast this morning, it wouldn’t be reported as a hunger strike," he explains.
The facility has seen a handful of confirmed mumps cases in recent weeks, and as of March 5, 357 detainees were under quarantine for possible exposure to mumps, chicken pox, or a combination of both. The contagious disease can lay dormant for weeks before symptoms appear, meaning that a seemingly healthy individual could be carrying the disease and infecting people without realizing it.
The Tri-County Health Department and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have been assisting the GEO facility with best practices for dealing with the mumps outbreak. The Tri-County Health Department is offering a measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, otherwise known as an MMR shot, to staff members and all current and incoming detainees.
Congressman Jason Crow, whose district includes the detention center, has sent letters to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security asking for more information about infectious-disease incidents at the facility, which recently expanded into a 432-bed annex.
Following news of the expansion, Crow and Allison Hiltz of Aurora City Council visited the facility unannounced in February to inspect the premises. They were denied entrance, and ICE representatives later said they would allow tours only if they were planned.
Crow says he's concerned that the agencies haven't responded to his letters.
"My concerns have not been resolved by the lack of responsiveness and transparency by ICE and the facility," he says. "The lack of quick response and cooperation has only underscored my concerns. The sooner they can get us the information, the better it’s going to be for everybody."