UPDATE: The Tri-County Health Department told the Sentinel they’ve been working with the state health department and federal officials to determine whether they have authority to get involved in possible outbreaks at the GEO detention center. The department now says they do and are working with the state to monitor conditions in the facility.
AURORA | Having the title “Congressman” isn’t enough to wield an impromptu tour of the immigration detention facility run by the GEO Group in Aurora. Rep. Jason Crow and Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz were turned away from the detention center Wednesday after requesting an “inspection.”
The visit was prompted by reports of a recent chickenpox outbreak, possibly the third since October, and an unannounced expansion of the facility, possibility by 30 percent, Crow told reporters after being turned away by detention center staff.
“We’re pretty concerned about the health and public safety concerns that are presented by this facility,” Crow said. “One of the fundamental responsibilities of Congress is to conduct oversight and accountability over our federal agencies and government activities in our respective districts.”
Two supervisors at the facility told the lawmakers they would have to make a formal request and be approved to be allowed in the center for a tour. Crow proposed inspecting areas that were not the “sterile” areas staff were describing.
ICE staff members, however, also declined those requests, saying that “there is a process to follow” to access the inside of the detention center, even as a congressman.
“We have members of Congress in here all the time,” one staff member who identified himself as a supervisor told Crow, but he could not name the last member of Congress to tour the facility when asked.
Hiltz expressed public safety concerns over the expansion, saying the city would not have adequate information about the facility or how many people are inside if they’d have to respond to an incident at the detention center. It’s not clear what kind of renovations or expansions have happened in the facility.
A spokespman for the GEO Group tole the Sentinel there has been no expansion or renovation of the center.
“The Aurora ICE Processing Center has always had 1,532 beds, including 432 beds that were not previously being used but had always been available to ICE,” according to spokesman. “The entire 1,532-bed Aurora ICE Processing Center has three valid business licenses issued by the City of Aurora. The licenses are issued to The GEO Group, Inc., GEO Corrections & Detention, LLC, and GEO Transport, Inc. All three companies provide services at the facility under the ICE contract.”
Crow presented the staff at the center with a letter he’s sent to Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, asking the agency to provide more information about the disease outbreaks, public safety responses to the facility and the expansion, which Crow says in the letter could be adding 432 more detainees to the premise, bringing a total capacity of 1,532 people.
Crow told reporters he expects a reply from the agency that oversees the facility.
Media reports indicate there was a quarantine of a “pod,” which houses detainees at the facility, in October. A Westword report from Jan. 31, details concerns from inmates that there was a second outbreak when they were told they could not leave their cells and were given no reason. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer in Denver confirmed at least two cases of chickenpox to the publication.
“Medical personnel are credited with reducing the further infection of detainees by their quick reaction to quarantine everyone who may have been inadvertently exposed to stop the spread of the disease,” the statement said.
An ICE spokeswoman said there has been one confirmed case of mumps at the facility, but no chickenpox cases since the two confirmed cases on February 1.
The Tri-County Health Department told the Sentinel that they offered their help in October, during the first reported outbreak, but facility officials declined the offer. An epidemiologist with Tri-County Health said the department has been working closely with the state health department on monitoring outbreaks in the facility. It was not previously clear to Tri-County Health whether they had authority to offer reconditions and inspect the GEO detention center during reports of outbreaks. Because it is a privately-owned facility gives Tri-County Health does have authority.
A state health department spokesman said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment presented recommendations to the facility, and are “actively following up with the facility on implementation of recommendations and are planning a site visit for later this month.”