Citing a lack of oversight and accountability, Colorado District 6 Representative Jason Crow took a broad public stance today, July 3, against the privatization of immigrant detention. He is calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to end its contracts with private prison companies such as the GEO Group, which runs the immigrant detention facility in Aurora.
“DHS and ICE will never accept responsibility for what happens at these private detention centers, so the only path forward for us is to end this for-profit private detention immigration system,” Crow says. “We will not have a system that complies with our morals and our values as a nation so long as companies are incentivized by profit to run these centers.”
Crow has long been a critic of GEO’s Aurora facility and an advocate for congressional oversight, introducing a bill that would require ICE to grant congressional access to facilities, and, along with District 2 Representative Joe Neguse, pushing for a congressional hearing to investigate the GEO Group.
On February 20, Crow attempted to visit and inspect the Aurora facility, concerned about the prison's third quarantine in a year due to an infectious-disease outbreak (there have since been more quarantines, the most recent one beginning June 4. The Tri-County Health Department confirmed that one unit was still under quarantine as of July 3.) Crow was originally denied entry; ICE said that it would not allow entry accompanied by media. He eventually was able to tour the facility, but following that difficulty and delay, Crow and nine other Democratic congressional representatives sent a letter to ICE requesting information about health conditions, medical services and disease outbreaks at detention facilities nationwide.
Last Friday — four months after he sent the original letter — Crow received a response from ICE, which he says indicates a lack of medical oversight. “IHSC [ICE Health Service Corps] does not have medical authority in facilities where it does not operate the medical clinic," the letter states.
Alethea Smock, a public relations officer for the Denver field office, confirmed that ICE does not have direct medical authority, but said that ICE exercises oversight via a field medical coordinator who conducts visits on a regular basis "to ensure that appropriate medical services are being provided according to national detention standards and contractual requirements." GEO Group has not responded to our request for comment.
ICE leaves direct decisions about medical care up to private contractors like the GEO Group to provide medical services and set their own procedures for medical care. Advocates have long criticized this arrangement, pointing out that private companies are incentivized to minimize costs by cutting corners on critical services. Even an internal report conducted by DHS in 2016 found that private immigrant detention facilities had widespread problems with inadequate medical care, and recommended that ICE provide medical services directly rather than leave it up to private companies. More recently, an internal review by ICE found that the death of Aurora inmate Kamyar Samimi in December 2017 was preceded by medical negligence.
“It's been abundantly clear to me that DHS and ICE are hiding behind these private facilities that do not have the same standards and oversight that the government-run facilities do,” Crow says.
A spokesperson from the GEO Group defended the company's medical practices, saying that disease outbreaks were due to many of the individuals having poor access to healthcare prior to being detained. Detainees, the spokesperson wrote in a statement sent to Westword "are medically screened immediately upon arrival and receive a full physical within 14 days of their admission. It is because of the medical care that is provided to them that we are able to detect, treat and follow appropriate medical protocols to manage an infectious outbreak and multiple acute and chronic care illnesses that have affected individuals who have been recently apprehended by federal authorities."
Nonetheless, the purported lack of medical oversight is not the only problem. Crow cited limited family visitation and limited access to legal visitation and counsel, with detained immigrants directed toward a “law library” with very sparse materials provided only in English. Furthermore, Crow explained, medical outbreaks can exacerbate barriers to legal help: Health quarantines prevent detained inmates from going to court or seeing a lawyer and thus stall immigration cases. That’s one issue that demonstrates how congressional oversight can make a difference: Only since Crow started putting pressure on this problem did Aurora implement a video-conferencing capability to address the problem, he says.
A 2016 report by Detention Watch Network reviewed structural problems with private immigrant prisons, finding that detainees reported not only medical, food and sanitation concerns, but also reported “mistreatment and abuse in various forms, including verbal abuse, employee theft, retaliation, abusive solitary confinement, and sexual harassment and assault.” The report traces the alarming prevalence of these issues to the "unclear" contracts that ICE makes with companies, many of which do not specify the standards to which the facilities should be held. Smock, of the local field office, said that ICE could not respond to generalized allegations.
Crow’s stance comes when the attention of the nation is turned toward the plight of dangerously overcrowded and under-resourced immigrant detention facilities near the border, particularly those holding migrant children. Many of these particular detention centers are federally run, not privately contracted — and health, sanitation and human-rights conditions are so bad that some congressional leaders have called them concentration camps.
“The facilities on the border that are run by Customs and Border Patrol have terrible problems, and we have to fix those problems,” Crow says. “There are degrees of horrific conditions, but they're all horrific.”
At facilities run directly by DHS, Congress has more oversight — at least in theory. And, Crow says, abolishing private immigrant detention centers would remove the profit incentive to detain more people and skimp on services that provide the basics.
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According to the Migration Policy Institute, an average of nearly three-quarters of immigrant detainees are held in private facilities. That’s a sharp spike from a decade ago, when most non-citizen detainees were held in local and county jails. The increase indicates that immigrant detention is a rapidly growing segment of the prison-industrial complex, and GEO Group is the corporation profiting most from it. In 2017, GEO Group received $184 million taxpayer dollars as a result of ICE contracts. And the money flows both ways: GEO has also spent more than $3 million in campaign contributions in the last two election cycles (including to Colorado Representative Mike Coffman), and over $1.4 million annually in political lobbying.
Crow said that this call is a step in “a very comprehensive long-term campaign to bring accountability and oversight back to our immigration system.” He hopes that other members of Congress will follow suit, keep pressuring ICE and DHS for transparency, and use the power of the purse to ensure that federal funds are not used harmfully.
The conditions in immigrant detention centers nationwide, Crow says, “are indications of a broken culture. When you have a broken culture and a broken system that's reinforced by a profit motivation, you're never going to get the type of system that we need to have that's consistent with our values as a nation.”
Update, July 5: We've updated this article with a statement from GEO Group.