Immigration advocacy groups allege abuse of solitary confinement and discrimination against people with disabilities at the Aurora immigration detention center in a complaint submitted Thursday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s oversight entities.
Immigrant detainees reported solitary confinement being used wrongfully and arbitrarily as punishment, that guards frequently used the threat of solitary to control immigrants, and that those with disabilities were mistreated.
The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the American Immigration Council and the National Immigration Project for the National Lawyers Guild detailed accusations of eight people who were or are still detained, calling for the Aurora facility’s immediate closure. Until that happens, they wrote, the federal agencies should launch an investigation into their claims and recommend systemic reforms and corrective actions.
“Despite a clear record of abuse and repeated deaths of people detained at the Aurora facility, the facility and ICE continue to fail to keep people safe,” the letter stated. “Complainants’ experiences highlight the myriad ways in which systemic abuses occur within the facility, with a particular focus on the increased misuse of solitary confinement. The examples provided in this complaint align with broader findings of mistreatment of people in (U.S. Immigrations and Customs) custody across the country.”
The detention center in Aurora is operated by private prison company The Geo Group through a contract with ICE. Immigrants who have been arrested by federal U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers are held there on pending or recently concluded immigration cases or as they await deportation.
The Denver Field Office of ICE and The Geo Group did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday morning, following the complaint’s submission. This story will be updated as soon as The Denver Post receives a response.
The advocacy organizations sent the 18-page letter, which included stories of people who have pending immigration cases and some of whom are still being detained. They allege a violation of ICE’s own policies and standards and say that the complainants’ “health and safety have been jeopardized and the facility has failed to protect complainants fearful of or who have suffered violence,” including by overusing and misusing solitary confinement.
Detainees, identified by pseudonyms, described situations where they would get locked up in solitary confinement over false accusations or with little evidence of wrongdoing. The Denver Post was not able to independently verify all of the accounts in the complaint.
While in solitary, one man alleged being stuck in a cold, small room, “mostly naked” and shackled, with guards not allowing him to make family or lawyer calls, and only letting out once a day for showers. The first time he was placed in solitary, he said it was because he was eating too slowly. He spent time in solitary 10 more times after that. He tried to kill himself by jumping from a second-story landing, and fell on his neck, leading to vertebrae fractures and severe swelling to his head and neck, according to the letter. He said he couldn’t talk to his family or lawyer from the hospital and was placed back in solitary upon his return.
“If I spoke too loudly, solitary. If I climbed on top of a table to get a guard’s attention, solitary,” he said in the complaint. “If I had suicidal thoughts, solitary. 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.”
Many of the accounts detailed in the complaint were from women. In one incident, an immigrant reported being placed in solitary after she was wrongly accused of spitting on another woman’s head and telling guards she didn’t do it. After she was let out, she said she was threatened with solitary confinement again and turned to self-harm. A medical provider told her to stop or they would move her to solitary confinement, she said, furthering her mental health problems.
For Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network’s Laura Lunn, the allegations weren’t surprising based on previous complaints. But what struck the director of advocacy and litigation is how many women were targeted for what she called punitive segregation for verbal disagreements.
“The way in which they were being sent to segregation felt infantilizing as if they were being treated like children in a way that is different than what typically plays out for the people detained in the male dorms,” she said.
Some of the allegations in the letter are also related to staff mistreatment of detainees outside of solitary confinement, including of those with medical diagnoses, and even related to sexual harassment. One immigrant said staff put her in a so-called suicide unit for several hours where she reported feeling uncomfortable naked and said that a guard told her “not to worry because she had already watched [her] on camera while [she] was taking a shower.”
One woman, who was a sexual assault and trafficking survivor and who has medical records showing a PTSD diagnosis, reported that she was placed in a dorm where she felt unsafe and was not provided adequate treatment, which worsened her mental health and affected her even after she was released. She accused officers of retaliation when reporting concerns, ignoring requests for medical care and facing sexual harassment and bullying.
“It’s like living with your own predator,” a woman identified as Emilia said in the letter. “It’s a nightmare, a torture.”
Another person who shared their story in the complaint described her fear after getting threats from a fellow detainee in her dorm about harming herself and others, and said rather than addressing the situation, guards refused to get involved and a nurse allegedly told her to fight back harder against the person.
Others reported being mocked by psychologists, not getting medically-necessary treatment, or potentially worse, being given the wrong medications.
Although the report only shares the stories of eight people, Lunn said that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones experiencing it. Guards have relied more on the use of solitary confinement in Aurora, and even across the country, Lunn said, after they got used to separating people for COVID. But now, she said, it’s focused on controlling behavior.
A detainee in the letter recalled being placed in solitary confinement with others from his dorm even though he was at a doctor’s visit when the fight reportedly occurred. He called the investigation by staff into what happened a “sham.” Another time, guards threatened to send him to solitary if he didn’t sleep at the top of his bunk, he said, despite a chronic medical condition that made it difficult for him to come down without help. He stayed up there for an entire day.
One man reported that guards placed him in solitary confinement for 15 days after he defended himself in a fight, despite camera recordings corroborating his story. A woman who has a psychological disability, according to the letter, described being sent to solitary after screaming when guards searched her possessions at midnight for a crochet hook.
These are not the first allegations against the Aurora detention center, including by the national groups who have filed this complaint. The American Immigration Council filed complaints against the Aurora detention center in 2018, 2019 and 2022, alleging inadequate medical and mental health care, and in 2022, alleging racial discrimination and excessive use of force.
The most-recent complaint stated that “DHS has been on notice of a systemic practice of medical neglect and inadequate care for people held in the Aurora facility,” and that since 2012, “someone has died every five years while detained in the Aurora facility. Each death was avoidable and stemmed from the poor medical care provided by the contract medical provider, GEO.”
Immigration attorneys from the groups noted the 2017 death of Kamyar Samimi (who was held in solitary confinement in his last 10 days of life) and the October 2022 death of Melvin Calero Mendoza, who died while in custody, as examples of this in their letter. An ICE Office of Professional Responsibility review of Samimi’s death found that medical staff did not comply with multiple standards.
“In particular with Aurora because there is such a history, a documented history of these specific problems around medical neglect around particularly the abuse of people with mental health conditions, I think we’re hopeful that we could get a strong finding from these oversight bodies that this facility is significantly out of compliance,” said Rebekah Wolf, senior policy counsel with the American Immigration Council.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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