Congressman Jason Crow and City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz prepare to address the press, Feb. 20, after their unsuccessful attempt at a surprise tour of the GEO ICE facility. Congressman Crow plans to file the required paperwork to tour the facility and will return once everything is squared away. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado
GEO ICE facility in Aurora.

AURORA | Congressman Jason Crow’s plans for oversight of the privately-owned immigration detention center in Aurora now includes weekly visits he says will shine a light on “egregious” conditions reported from inside the facility. 

Crow first attempted to tour the GEO Group Inc.-operated detention center in February after reports of infectious disease outbreaks. He was denied a tour twice before being allowed into the facility where up to 1,532 detainees can be held, many of which have come from the Mexico border and are awaiting asylum hearings.

Reports from governmental oversight organizations and journalists have revealed several disease cases in the detention center — the most recent occurring in late May — and instances where GEO Group staff have failed to meet standards set by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. 

An unannounced visit from the Office of Inspector General to the detention center last year found “open packaged food (that) was not properly relabeled and dated for future consumption,” lack of outdoor recreational space, male and female detainees sharing recreational space, detainees that were not allowed in-person visits and “serious issues with the administrative and disciplinary segregation of detainees.”

Following the release of the inspector’s reports, Crow said the findings were “deeply troubling” reinforced his call for more oversight. 

“When we tried to visit the ICE detention center in Aurora unannounced, it was because we were afraid that ICE would put on the window dressing for Congress and, as we see today, it turns out those fears were not unfounded,” he said last month.

A released statement from GEO Group following that report said the issues were promptly fixed.

An internal review also released earlier this year details the death of Kamyar Samimi, a 64-year-old Iranian citizen who was detained in the facility. That report found several mishandlings by the GEO Group staff when Samimi complained of his deteriorating health two weeks leading up to his death on Dec. 2, 2017.

Crow told the Sentinel Tuesday that his plan for weekly tours would bring some accountability to the facility that does not currently exist. A letter from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, reportedly denies “(ICE) has an oversight role over health conditions at privately contract facilities, like the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.”

Earlier this year, there was confusion between GEO Group and the local health department on whether they have to report infectious disease cases, like mumps and chickenpox, to the Tri-County Health Department.

Health and safety will be Crow’s focus on the tours, he said, noting that his original request to tour the facility led to vaccines being offered to staff members and detainees inside the facility.

“Oversight works, we know that. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it does make a difference,” he said.

Crow announced his plans Tuesday, saying the first visit to the detention center in north Aurora will be on July 15 and weekly thereafter on a scheduled basis so there won’t be “surprises for anybody involved.” Crow said he would attend the visits if his schedule permits, and other times members of his staff will conduct the oversight visits. 

Ultimately, Crow said he’d like to see ICE move away from using privately-owned prisons to house immigration detainees. 

“Private, for-profit detention centers have become a stain on our American values. Since taking office, I have fought for accountability and called on this administration to respect the dignity of all people,” he said in a statement earlier this week. “We have an immigration detention system that is driven by corporate greed. This system has allowed corporations like GEO Group to cut corners on necessary medical care and safety to benefit their bottom line.”

Crow is still working to require congressional oversight of privately-operated ICE detention centers. In May, he introduced the Public Oversight of Detention Centers Act or POD Act, which would require that access be granted to members of Congress within 48 hours of the request.

“I believe that government works best when the public has access to information about what it’s doing with taxpayer money,” Crow said of that legislation. “This is a common sense bill. It’s about transparency, it’s about community and making sure we know what government is doing.”