The immigrant detention center in Aurora has placed at least ten detainees in a 21-day quarantine after they were infected with, or exposed to, varicella — better known as chicken pox. The quarantine is scheduled to end on October 29, after which the currently isolated detainees will once again be permitted to mingle with detainees from other housing units in the facility and have face-to-face visits with their attorneys.
News of the quarantine got out after a number of immigrant-rights organizations, including the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, learned of it last week. Today, October 25, they held a press conference decrying the conditions at the detention center, which is run by the private prison company GEO Group.
At the press event, one former detainee talked about the lack of medical treatment in the facility, alleging that while he was there, other detainees' complaints about serious medical and mental health conditions like heart palpitations and suicidal thoughts were ignored by guards and staff.
Ana Rodriguez of the Colorado People's Alliance told Westword that the quarantine was delaying affected detainees' hearings, including those who want to pay bond and get out of the facility, and was making it difficult for detainees to communicate with attorneys.
“For us, this isn't an isolated incident,” Rodriguez explained. “This is a trend. They could have caught this varicella outbreak earlier, but they're not listening to people's medical concerns until hours or days later.”
Indeed, there have been plenty of problems at the GEO Group center, including inmate deaths, in one case caused by employees not calling an ambulance until it was too late for a man experiencing a heart attack ("Medical and Mental Health Horror Stories Emerge From Aurora Immigrant Detention Center").
I heard about the quarantine recently when I was interviewing the main subject for this week's cover story, "Here Today, Here Tomorrow," which details the struggle of a Pakistani man who wants to be deported but hasn't been able to leave the United States.
Syed Irbaz Shah said he was glad the detainees infected with chicken pox were in quarantine so they couldn't spread it to others in the center. But Shah also had plenty of complaints about medical care at the facility, going as far as to say, “Unless you’re dying or falling over, they just give you ibuprofen for everything in here.”
He added that the medical staff had seen some turnover in recent months, and the new team is significantly better than the old staff.
ICE and the GEO Group were slow to respond to questions for the aforementioned cover story. That was not the case today. It took ICE and the GEO Group less than thirty minutes to respond to questions for this story, and both strongly refuted the claims by immigrant-rights organizations.
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In a statement, ICE Denver Field Office Director Jeffrey Lynch wrote, “CIRC’s disingenuous media advisory and news conference are obvious attempts to misinform the public about serious detention issues that it is not qualified to address — especially without first contacting my office in advance. Quarantining 10 ICE detainees — not 25 as CIRC stated — was medically necessary to protect the Aurora CDF population, facility staff, and the general public from varicella, a highly contagious disease. ICE has demonstrated to numerous members of Congress during facility tours in the past year the many proactive steps ICE and GEO have taken to provide quality care and immunizations for detainees.”
The GEO Group, through spokesman Pablo Paez, added, “We strongly dispute the baseless allegations related to the handling of this quarantine and more generally the care provided at the Aurora Center, which has a long-standing record providing high-quality, culturally responsive services in a safe, secure, and humane environment.”
ICE says that the varicella outbreak was discovered on September 27.
“Seventy-seven ICE detainees in one housing unit were potentially exposed to varicella,” ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok says. “Of the 77 detainees who were tested, medical staff diagnosed three detainees with varicella; seven others had low immunity and therefore possessed increased risk factors of contracting the disease; all 10 were quarantined at the facility. The Aurora CDF medical staff continues to provide high-level care to all those affected, while at the same time continuing to serve the medical needs of the entire facility population. To avoid spreading this highly contagious disease, face-to-face contact with attorneys, family and friends is not permitted for those in quarantine. However, alternate communication means are available to maintain contact, such as by computer tablet, telephone and mail.”