Immigrant rights groups call for closure or ‘systemic reform’ of Aurora detention center
Complaint alleging misuse of solitary confinement filed with Department of Homeland Security
The ICE detention facility in Aurora. (Robert Davis for Colorado Newsline)
Immigrant advocacy groups are calling for the closure of the immigration detention center in Aurora, or at least an overhaul of procedures, to address alleged systemic abuse at the facility.
On Thursday, three groups including Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network filed a complaint to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security urging an investigation into the misuse of solitary confinement at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Aurora, run by private prison company GEO Group.
The complaint, filed on behalf of people currently or previously detained at the facility, alleges the facility’s staff misuse solitary confinement and mistreat people with disabilities and victims of assault and violence. It details the experiences of eight people detained at or recently released from the Aurora facility.
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One individual included in the complaint stated they were put in solitary confinement unnecessarily multiple times.
“If I spoke too loudly, solitary. If I climbed on top of a table to get a guard’s attention, solitary. If I had suicidal thoughts, solitary,” the individual identified only by her first name, Felix, stated in the complaint. “When the guards would tease me about being deported back to my home country and make airplane sounds at me and gesture like a plane was taking me away, I would become upset and then get solitary for being upset.”
The complaint also details safety concerns of survivors of assault or violence. Another individual included in the complaint, Lauren, has severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she was placed in solitary confinement for six days after she was falsely accused of spitting on another woman’s bed.
During her time in isolation, she experienced hallucinations and voices, symptoms she said she hadn’t experienced in a long time. In the complaint, she said other people detained in the facility try not to report issues because staff would make the situation worse.
“Most of the time we just don’t tell the guards about the problems, including about safety, because we know they will do something like (GEO staff) did, and we will be even less safe than we were before,” Lauren stated in the complaint.
Laura Lunn, director of advocacy and litigation for RMIAN, said the organizations wanted to show the public that people are being mistreated within the facility. It is alleging GEO Group is violating ICE’s policies regarding solitary confinement use.
Lunn said the organizations have seen an uptick in the use of solitary confinement since the pandemic. She said what was used during the pandemic as a way to try to prevent the spread of the disease is now used more regularly as punishment.
“They then extrapolated this mechanism to control people within the facility and so that’s when we started seeing an uptick not just in medical segregation, but also in punitive and administrative segregation,” Lunn said.
In an email to Colorado Newsline, a GEO Group spokesperson stated that all ICE processing centers are governed by ICE performance-based national detention standards set by DHS.
The groups allege that GEO Group is in violation of those standards, which state that people in custody may be placed in solitary confinement only after a disciplinary hearing panel finds the person violated a rule and that solitary confinement can only be ordered when alternative options are not adequate.
“Under no circumstances is assignment in a special management unit used in a retaliatory manner or without careful adherence to the performance-based national detention standards and the ICE notification procedures,” the GEO Group spokesperson said. “As a service provider to a federal agency, GEO is required to meet DHS policies and standards and plays no role in creating them.”
But Lunn said there is a lack of effective oversight of ICE facilities.
“There is not an independent oversight body that operates in order to make sure that ICE is following its own detention policies,” Lunn said. “If you want to complain about how ICE is behaving, you have to complain to ICE itself.”
A push to end solitary confinement
In the complaint, the groups first request that DHS recommend terminating the contract that allows for the operation of the Aurora facility and the release of all individuals detained in the Aurora facility. Failing that, they urge DHS to investigate the facility and recommend “systemic reform” of its policies.
Lunn noted that although there is a nationwide push to end solitary confinement in prisons, it hasn’t included immigration detention.
President Joe Biden called for the end of the practice before taking office as part of his plan to overhaul the federal prison system. In 2017, Colorado ended the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons, and in 2021, the Legislature passed a bill restricting the use of it in jails.
“There hasn’t been the same type of top-down requests for reform when it comes to people and civil immigration detention,” Lunn said. “It is our firm belief that there should not be any type of use of solitary confinement in a setting where people are just trying to access their civil immigration proceedings.”
The detention center has been the subject of previous allegations of mistreatment, including a recent qualitative study by Colorado State University and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition on the living conditions of the facility. In it, 17 individuals shared their experiences within the facility, which they said included dehumanizing and racist behavior by staff.
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat who represents Aurora, has been calling for reform at the facility. In April, after hearing about allegations of abuse, he said he’d like to see private detention facilities eventually closed.
Lunn said the complaint also aimed to empower people detained within the facility to feel like they can share their experience.
“So much of what happens in ICE custody never comes to light because it takes place in prisons where people don’t have a mechanism to share their stories,” Lunn said.
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