Three immigrant rights organizations have filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security demanding an investigation into what they say is the increased and arbitrary use of solitary confinement at the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora.
The American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Project and the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network filed the complaint Thursday on behalf of people who are currently in the detention center or were recently housed there.
The facility, owned and operated by GEO Group Inc., is where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency holds people who have pending or recently concluded immigration cases. Most of the people held there are seeking asylum or protection from torture in their home countries and are typically awaiting hearings in immigration court, said Laura Lunn, director of advocacy and litigation at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.
The complaint states people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by the overuse of solitary confinement at the facility. It alleges a pattern of placing people at risk of self-harm in isolation to inflict punishment and gain control rather than providing a safe environment and adequate medical and mental health care.
The complaint also alleges that GEO Group has failed to ensure professional conduct by its staff and that ICE and GEO Group have jeopardized the health and safety of all people detained there including those who have survived assault and fear violence.
The complaint, which includes interviews with eight people identified by pseudonyms, calls on the Department of Homeland Security to end a contract between ICE and GEO Group, release the people detained there and permanently close the facility.
At a minimum, the complainants said, they are asking DHS to promptly investigate the use of solitary confinement and the incidents reported in the complaint, and probe whether the facility is complying with ICE policies before recommending corrective actions for staff.
“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,” a GEO spokesman wrote in an email Monday night. “As a service provider to a federal agency, GEO is required to meet DHS policies and standards and plays no role in creating them.”
To ensure that violations described in the complaint don’t occur at other detention centers, the immigration groups are also asking ICE to end the use of solitary in all the facilities it contracts with and implement stricter measures of accountability for the locations that violate these obligations.
“ICE is responsible for the safety of detained individuals, which it has repeatedly demonstrated it cannot provide,” said Rebekah Wolf, senior policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.
“The egregious use of solitary confinement is detrimental to detained individuals’ mental and physical well-being,” she said. “The misuse and overuse of solitary confinement leaves people in detention fearful to report safety concerns for fear of its punitive use, and without recourse to protect themselves.”
Steve Kotecki, a spokesman for the agency’s Denver field office, said he would not comment on specific allegations detailed in the complaint. ICE takes allegations of misconduct seriously and staff are required to abide by company policies that outline professional and ethical behavior, he said.
When a complaint is received, it is investigated, he said. ICE encourages filing complaints about detention facilities by calling 888-351-4024, he added. ICE is committed to ensuring people in its custody live in safe and humane environments under appropriate conditions of confinement, Kotecki added.
However, growing research shows solitary confinement is ineffective, dangerous and inhumane and leads to new or worsening mental health conditions. In the worst cases, prolonged isolation also leads to self-harm and suicide.
“When Biden ran for office he pledged to end the use of solitary confinement in the criminal setting and he issued an executive order in May 2022, on this issue,” said Ann Garcia, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Project. “From our perspective, his urgency to end the use and overuse of solitary confinement in the criminal setting certainly should extend to civil immigration settings.”
A history of complaints
Thursday’s complaint follows a different one that was filed in April 2022, which alleged racial discrimination, excessive force and retaliation against two Black immigrants housed at the ICE detention center in Aurora.
“We haven’t seen any response about any of the group complaints that we have filed out of Aurora,” Lunn said.
Numerous complaints about medical and neglect and inadequate care for people held at GEO have been filed with DHS, according to the complaint. Since 2012, three people detained have died at the Aurora facility. The deaths were avoidable and stemmed from poor medical care provided by GEO Group, the contractor providing health services, according to the complaint.
After Evalin-Ali Mandza died in 2012, an ICE contractor review found medical staff were unfamiliar with the organization’s chest pain protocol, that appropriate cardiac medicine was not given to Mandza while he was having a heart attack and that the long length of time it took to get him to a hospital all may have contributed to his death, according to the complaint.
The ICE Office of Professional Responsibility’s review of Kamyar Samimi’s death at the detention center in 2017 found medical staff did not fully comply with several of its standards, such as maintaining an adequate number of medical staff and providing an on-call doctor with whom nurses could consult. Staff also failed to seek emergency care for Samimi after the only full-time physician followed GEO policy and ordered that Samimi be cut off from the methadone he had been legally taking for 20 years. He was held in solitary confinement in the medical unit for the last 16 days of his life, according to the complaint.
On June 4, 2018, immigration organizations filed a complaint about the Aurora facility’s failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care. And on June 11, 2019, the organizations filed a supplement to the former complaint highlighting the experiences of five additional people.
Melvin Calero Mendoza died at the Aurora facility on Oct. 13, 2022, from a pulmonary embolism that likely stemmed from a toe injury he sustained while playing soccer, which was left untreated for months.
Recent interviews with people who have been detained there confirm that the agency continues to fall short of meeting ICE detention standards, the complaint states.
“It is important to highlight that this is happening in the state of Colorado, a place that works diligently to provide a welcoming and hospitable refuge to immigrants, migrants, and refugees,” Lunn said. “This complaint underscores that our local and state governments cannot prevent this type of harmful treatment as long as ICE operates in our communities.”
The complaint alleges ICE is violating its 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards, which provides guidance on how to create a safe environment, including for survivors of assault or violence.
The policy states people in ICE custody should be placed in disciplinary segregation only after a disciplinary hearing panel finds the person is guilty of a severe or moderate rule violation; that people should only be placed in solitary if other alternatives don’t regulate their behavior; and that people with serious mental illness must not be placed in isolation because of their illness. However, staff are overusing solitary confinement, according to the complaint.
For example, a staff member threatened to send “Daniel,” a man whose story is included in the complaint, to solitary confinement if he did not agree to move to the top bunk in his dorm. “I usually sleep in the lower bunk bed because I don’t have the strength to climb to the top,” he told the interviewer.
After he moved to the top bunk, he could not get down without help. He stayed there on the top bunk for a day, missing most of the meals offered that Sunday, until dorm mates helped him come down.
On his first day at the facility, “Felix” was in solitary confinement for eating too slowly. A staff member took his food tray away, and when he protested, told him he was being “noncompliant” and put him in solitary confinement for three days.
He was placed in solitary confinement about 10 more times during his detention there before ICE transferred him to another facility where he’s receiving better care for his deteriorating mental health, according to the complaint.
“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. 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,” he says in the complaint.
“Felix” attempted suicide, the second time of three times, while he was detained at the facility by jumping from a second-story landing.
“Even when I was in the hospital from my suicide attempt, ICE would not tell my attorneys where I was being kept or allow them to speak to me,” he said.
He was returned to GEO in Aurora after several days in the hospital, where he was treated for fractured vertebrae in his neck and muscle injuries, and placed back in solitary for 15 days.
“I laid on my back with no pillow to support my neck, in agony, with only some ibuprofen to try and numb the pain,” he said. “They told me solitary kept me safe and helped me, but it was only ever a punishment.”
The 2011 standards state staff will effectively respond to or mitigate any safety, medical or mental health concerns of detained people; that facility leaders will move a person to a different housing unit if they are concerned about their safety; and that detention center staff must give special consideration to people who are vulnerable when placing them in solitary confinement including victims of any crime or people with mental or physical disabilities.
But staff routinely discount safety concerns of people in ICE custody until an incident occurs, and then they separate individuals who are demonstrating disruptive behavior for a short period and fail to address the safety or mental health needs of those involved, according to the complaint.
For example, after “Bianca” asked guards to transfer her to another room because she was receiving threats from another woman at the facility, staff told her the women should fight each other, according to the complaint.
“Bianca” later learned from a GEO staff member that the woman, who likely needed access to mental health treatment, had threatened to harm herself and staff members.
Instead of providing mental health treatment to the woman making the threats, staff became concerned for themselves and said they were not interested in risking their lives, according to the complaint.
After her attorney reached out to the facility, “Bianca” was moved to a different dorm.
A man, “Mateo,” said he spent 15 days in solitary confinement after he defended himself when he was attacked in his dorm by another detained person.
Staff removed him from the dorm for a short time to conduct a proceeding where he was found guilty of engaging in the fight. He asked GEO staff to check video cameras to confirm that he did not cause the fight. But in the complaint, he said he doesn’t know if they ever did.
“ICE and GEO didn’t do anything to protect me,” he said in the complaint. “There were cameras recording the incident but no one … ever talked with me about what happened.”