Members of Colorado People’s Alliance, the American Friends Service Committee, state legislators and medical professionals gathered for a virtual press conference to demand transparency and accountability from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the GEO detention facility in Aurora, Colorado. Since October, the number of reported cases inside the detention facility has been steadily increasing, reaching 111 cases of folks detained in the facility testing positive part of a total of 135 including staff by Monday morning. Activists and medical professionals fear this number is much greater in part due to testing access within the facility, sanitation procedures and lack of transparency when reporting data. Detention — both private facilities and government-run — is rife with medical neglect and had seen multiple deaths from medical neglect even prior to COVID-19. As part of broader efforts to end mass incarceration, immigrant rights advocates have long called for the ending of immigration detention and for resources to be redirected to health and housing.
Colorado People’s Alliance has been able to connect with detained folks inside the facility through a newly established Detention Lifeline. Mauricio Pérez was able to reach COPA through this direct line. He is currently detained at the Aurora GEO detention facility and has tested positive for COVID-19. “When we first got here it was only a matter of a week before the entire 30 person population started having sore throat symptoms and coughs,” Mauricio shared with COPA community organizers. “A total of two weeks after we had arrived, we were told that all [30 people in the pod] of us had contracted COVID-19”. Listen to Mauricio’s full testimony here.
Medical professionals familiar with the current COVID-19 outbreak were able to speak on the necessary steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 in these detention centers. “With the current outbreak at the GEO detention center in Aurora, CO, we are seeing the fruition of the facilities’ negligence and incompetence in managing the covid-19 pandemic within their facility. Early in the pandemic we offered the facility masks and we were turned away. As we stated at that time, GEO has put the lives of all of those detained in the Aurora facility and all of those who work there in jeopardy with their inexcusable safety practices. As healthcare workers we know that the only safe way to stop the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention is to release all people detained. We cannot stand by as people die in detention,” Danielle Loeb, MD, MPH, primary care physician.
The lack of transparency and need for swift action is echoed by at least 48 Colorado State Legislators, who signed on to a letter Monday morning asking for immediate release under humanitarian parole to allow those detained the ability to recover at community isolation centers, at home with loved ones, or given a voucher to isolate safely at a hotel.
“As legislators, we responded directly to the individuals in facilities like the GEO Center in Aurora, who reported moldy food, lack of medical care, lack of sanitary living conditions, and previous disease outbreaks. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is expected to complete an inspection of the GEO facility in the next two months and report to the General Assembly in January 2021. In light of the spike of COVID-19 cases, it is clear that the facility has not taken the proper steps to prevent another outbreak or look after the lives in their care. We cannot wait until January to hold GEO accountable to prevent further cases in the facility and save lives from this deadly disease.”
“As legislators, we call on Warden Johnny Choate to immediately demonstrate full compliance with HB20-1409, ensure that all detainees and staff within the facility are tested on a regular basis, and that medical care be given to all those in need. We also call on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Colorado Field Office Director, who has the authority to release detainees, to release on humanitarian parole all individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and all individuals with underlying health conditions that put them at a greater risk of complications with COVID-19, so that they may isolate at a community isolation center, at home with loved ones, or given a voucher to isolate safely at a hotel. The determination of who qualifies for this release should be made by independent and qualified medical professionals. Detention should never be a death sentence. We must treat all detainees within the facility with dignity and prioritize their health and safety.” Read the full letter in English here.
Families, legislators and other community members are all met with the same uncertainty of not knowing how many cases there really are. Local leaders in Aurora have been able to receive information through reports made to the city Fire Chief, as a mandate required by the City of Aurora.
Juan Marcano, one of Aurora’s city council members and COPA member shared, “The most recent COVID outbreak at the GEO ICE detention facility is another grim reminder of the danger posed both by the virus and our cruel and inhumane immigration system. We must put humanity above the profit of private detention facilities. I am calling on Colorado’s federal delegation to do everything they can to secure humanitarian release for the people detained at the facility, and get to work delivering comprehensive immigration reform that provides a direct path to citizenship for our undocumented neighbors, and to outlaw for-profit detention facilities not just in Colorado but across the nation.”
In just the last two weeks, four people detained by ICE have died of COVID-19, with 1,406 people testing positive out of 2,781 tested as of May 23. (50.5%). ICE testing lags far behind the number of people they have jailed. Only 10% have been tested while epidemiological models estimate that at least 70% of people detained by ICE could contract the virus; another model warns that overall, mass incarceration could lead to an additional 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. The coronavirus has been especially deadly in prisons, jails and detention centers across the US; keeping people confined in close spaces has made it easy for the virus to spread. Public health experts have called for releasing large numbers of community members to avoid a significant loss of life, but ICE has failed to do so.
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