AURORA, CO – More than 300 immigrant detainees in Aurora’s privately-run ICE detention facility are now being held in quarantine after mumps and chicken pox outbreaks, officials said Monday. The Tri-County Health Department has recommended that every detainee now be given a measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, when they are admitted. There are three confirmed cases of mumps and six cases of chicken pox (varicella) at the facility now, officials said.
The quarantines began in November, and typically last about 24 days. But as new cases of mumps and chicken pox have popped up, people in the same units are being quarantined again and again, officials said.
The number of reported people in quarantine increased from 212 last week. Congressman Jason Crow (D-Aurora) was turned away when he arrived at the facility unannounced two weeks ago and asked to be shown around, saying he heard about health problems at the facility.
Patch was among media representatives invited to tour the facility Monday, at 3130 S. Oakland St. in Aurora. Neither Crow nor a representative from his office was allowed to take part, because of “different tours for members of Congress and the media,” said Alethea Smock, Denver’s ICE communications spokesperson.
“[Jason Crow’s office] asked for a tour on Friday and we were told no,” said Anne Feldman, Crow’s communications director in an email to Patch. “Once we heard there was a media tour for today, we asked if we could simply join on the tour and were again denied.”
What did Jason Crow miss?
Journalists from local print, online and television news organizations arrived at the facility Monday. The Aurora detention center houses 1,500 federal detainees in the main building and another 432 in an “overflow annex” brought online under a temporary 90-day contract to hold detainees from the U.S./Mexico border, said John Fabbricatore, ICE’s Denver’s acting field office director. There are also 80 beds for U.S. Marshal prisoners in a separate unit.
About 800 new detainees from the border area were moved into the facility, and some people in that cohort were the source of the mumps outbreak, Fabbricatore said.
Florida-based private prison contractor The Geo Group, owns the complex. The company re-ups its contract with the federal government every two-to-four years, according to SEC documents filed in 2015. About 70,000 prisoners are administered by Geo Group nationwide, and the company also operates prisons in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
Reporters were shown the medical facilities, where a single doctor is employed on staff. Since January, Geo has added six new registered nurses, Johnny Choate, facility administrator said. A whiteboard in the medical office indicated that several detainees were being treated for mumps and varicella, as well as for “suicide watch” and “seizures.”
Detainees wear color-coded uniforms based on a point-scale determined at intake that indicates whether they have criminal convictions. Reporters mostly saw detainees (all male) wearing navy blue, which is worn by the lowest-level offenders. The color scale escalates to orange and then to up to red for those detainees who have “points” for violent crimes in the past. Members of different gangs are kept apart, staff said.
The only sign of female detainees was a table draped with crocheted scarves, hats and other items. Female detainees make the crafts for donation to charities like Ronald McDonald House with yarn provided by Geo Group, Choate said.
A tour of the kitchen area featured several detainees who “volunteer” to work for $1 per day, Choate said. “They like to work and they volunteer,” he emphasized.
The Aurora facility and Geo were sued in a class-action lawsuit 2017 which alleged that detainees forced to work for $1 a day were being made to do forced labor akin to slavery. Detainees said they had been threatened with solitary confinement if they refused to work for the low wages.
In the empty dayroom areas, through wire-meshed glass where the smell of food wafted, reporters were shown handheld tablets, one for every 10 detainees, with which people can text or video-chat with loved ones in the outside world (for a cost).
“They have three flat-screen TVs, which they can listen to with earphones,” Choate said. “They can play games. They love Nintendo.”
When reporters finally saw the detainees themselves, the all-male inmates were confined to the three-inch thick mattresses of their bunk-beds in mass dormitories. The tour was scheduled during the daily “count,” which happens four times a day.
Quarantined detainees were limited to specific rooms, with health warnings posted on the glass.
For a facility with 2,000 detainees, 175 detention officers are employed, who start at just over $25 per hour. The ratio in the POD units at most times is one officer per 80 detainees, officials said.
Officers are expected to enter the quarantined areas, Choate said, because “they’ve all been immunized. Or if they want they can wear a mask. If they don’t want to [go into the quarantine area] we won’t make them,” he said.
These revolving-door quarantines are interfering with detainees’ legal rights and their ability to have their court cases heard, said immigration lawyer Tiago Guevara, who said he had “at least three clients” in quarantine. Quarantined clients have missed hearings, which are rescheduled, only to have the quarantine return again.
“I had one client who was literally walking out the door, and they grabbed him and said, ‘quarantine,'” Guevara said. He said he depends on face-to-face conversations with clients because phone calls from the quarantine rooms are recorded and aren’t safe for “sensitive conversations.”
“I’ve been vaccinated. I’d wear a mask if I could talk to my clients, but I haven’t been offered that option,” he said. “These quarantines mean my clients are being unnecessarily detained for longer periods than they should be.”
Jason Crow’s office issued a statement Monday afternoon, after being denied access to the facility a third time.
“Despite being faced with multiple reports of poor conditions and disease outbreaks, ICE has repeatedly blocked our office from performing basic congressional oversight, including from joining today’s media tour,” the statement said. “This disturbing pattern raises the obvious question: why is ICE delaying oversight of this facility? I will continue to push for transparency and accountability until we are allowed a tour of the facility, receive responses to our written questions, and know that ICE is providing the proper treatment and care to its detainees. The constituents of the sixth district deserve to know what the government is doing on their behalf in our community.”
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