ACLU of Colorado launches lawsuit against Aurora GEO center in death of Iranian immigrant

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DENVER | Lawyers with the ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against GEO Group Inc., a privately-owned company which operates prisons and detention centers, this week for the wrongful death of Kamyar Samimi, an Iranian who died in the Aurora immigration detention center in 2017.

“The biggest thing for our family is awareness,” said Neda Samimi-Gomez, the youngest of Kamyar Samimi’s three children. “Nothing can bring back our father or mend that hole that’s been left in our lives.”

The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages and attorney costs.

Neda Samimi-Gomez and her brother Tony Samimi discuss the impact of losing their father, who died while in custody at the GEO Aurora ICE Processing Center. The ACLU is suing the GEO Group, alleging negligence in the death of Kamyar Samimi.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Kamyar Samimi was an Iranian immigrant who’d come to the U.S. as a student in the ’70s and eventually obtained a Green Card. In all that time, he never naturalized, his family said. In his time in the U.S., he had at least one drug conviction. 

For more than 25 years he’d been receiving methadone treatment, according to the ACLU.

In November 2017, federal immigration agents confronted and then detained Kamyar Samimi. They reported that he was being scrutinized for being “convicted for possessing less than one gram of a controlled substance 12 years prior, he had violated his LPR status and was now under arrest,” according to reports obtained by the ACLU.

He died 15 days later at the age of 64 at the GEO Group detention center. It was the “result of extreme mistreatment,” the ACLU alleges in its lawsuit, which also names then-GEO Group Dr. Jeffrey Peterson, who was the sole medical doctor working at the Aurora facility.

Even after stating he’d been going through withdrawal symptoms, Peterson discontinued Kamyar Samimi’s methadone and instead prescribed Ativan, Clonidine, Cyclobenzaprine, ibuprofen and Phenergan and recommended increased fluids, according to an ICE report.

The lawsuit alleges that GEO Group nurses failed to administer many of those prescribed medications.

Over the next several days Kamyar Samimi’s health declined, he attempted suicide and reportedly fainted in the hall, which one report noted as “drug seeking behavior.” A report made by government investigators in May found that Kamyar Samimi died of “undetermined causes” and that while considered rare “methadone withdrawal cannot be ruled out.”

Tony Samimi, 36, said filing the lawsuit means shining a light on the problems inmates at immigration detention centers face.

“Over time and with persistent and a consistent message we can make a change,” he said. 

In addition to claims of negligence and wrongful death, the lawsuit claims Kamyar Samimi was being discriminated against by GEO Group for “having a disability of Opioid Use Disorder.”

Mark Silverstein, legal director at ACLU of Colorado, said the the order that Kamyar Samimi be taken off his methadone treatment was “medically unjustifiable, and it precipitated the ugly and ultimately fatal consequences that ensured.” 

“While this case is only about Mr. Samimi, the documents (we’ve been table to obtain) provide a window in what appears to be systemic problems,” Silverstein said of the GEO Group’s oversight of inmates at its facilities. 

The ACLU, which sued the federal government over requests to release public documents related to Kamyar Samimi’s death in April, is still waiting for ICE to release requested documents. That’s part of the reason why it’s taken two years to file a wrongful death suit, Silverstein said. “It takes something extreme to get any information at all.”

Like Neda and Tony, Silverstein thinks the suit can play a role even larger than accountability in the death of Kamyar Samimi. 

“It does help to shine a light on the larger issues of substandard medical care in immigration detention facilities and the even larger issue of the very question of why is it okay to lock people up simply because they are alleged to have committed a civil violation of immigration laws,” Silverstein said. “We usually think of these prison-like facilities where people are forbidden to leave as being reserved for people who are charged with crimes…Here we don’t have anyone convicted, charged or accused of a crime. We have somebody who is accused of an administrative violation.”