Medical Care For Immigrants Is Only Getting Worse At An ICE Detention Center, Advocates Say

“I cannot take the pain any longer,” a 42-year-old immigrant detainee said.

A year after immigrant advocates made US authorities aware of poor medical and mental health care at a Colorado detention facility, conditions have only gotten worse, according to a new complaint filed Tuesday.

The new administrative complaint, obtained by BuzzFeed News, was submitted to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General. It detailed stories of immigrant detainees who received inconsistent medication, suffered delayed medical care, and faced threats of punitive segregation following suicide attempts.

The supplemental complaint follows a similar one the American Immigration Council and American Immigration Lawyers Association submitted in June 2018 on behalf of immigrants detained at the Denver Contract Detention Facility (DCDF) in Aurora, Colorado, who endured "pain, serious injury, or the risk of death."

Katie Shepherd, national advocacy counsel with the Immigration Justice Campaign of the American Immigration Council, said that the federal government has failed to respond in a meaningful way to their complaint last year and continues to provide poor medical care.

"The government has failed to provide adequate medical care, and the result is the suffering and death that occurs inside ICE detention centers," Shepherd told BuzzFeed News. "If they're going to keep tens of thousands of people in their custody at any one time, then they need to humanely and responsibly provide the services necessary for those in their care."

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement GEO Group, the private prison contractor that operates the jail, said detainees at the facility are medically screened immediately upon arrival and receive a full physical within 14 days of their admission. The company noted they have a full-time physician, a full-time physician’s assistant, as well as a cadre of nursing services, dentist, psychologist, psychiatrist.

“GEO’s medical program at the facility provides 24/7 medical services,” the company said.

The two organizations that wrote the complaint said that over the past year, conditions for immigrant detainees have grown “measurably worse.” They say this is in part because the GEO Group expanded the Aurora facility by opening a 432-bed annex, increasing its capacity to 1,532.

Despite the expansion, GEO Group, which provides medical care to detainees, continues to arrange to have only one physician on staff at any one time to oversee the hundreds of people detained at the Aurora facility, the complaint said.

In May, Rocky Mountain PBS reported on a federal report looking into the death of a 64-year-old man that found that medical staff at the detention
facility failed to seek emergency care for him before he died in December 2017.

The complaint also comes days after the Young Turks published an email from an ICE supervisor saying “[ICE’s Health Services Corps] is severely dysfunctional and unfortunately preventable harm and death to detainees has occurred.” The Dec. 3, 2018, memo was sent to Matthew Albence, who was then the acting deputy director of ICE.

There have been several outbreaks of mumps and chickenpox at the Aurora facility over the past few months, which have resulted in quarantines that impede access to attorneys, Shepherd said.

The complaint accuses GEO of failing to vaccinate and properly medically screen individuals.

The complaint said a 71-year-old Mexican man with Parkinson’s disease and chronic kidney disease held at DCDF receives a different number of pills at times without explanation. The man, referred to with the pseudonym "Omar" in the report, also has dementia and is unable to determine whether he is receiving the correct dosage.

"According to Omar, the nurse informed him that he was receiving fewer pills because they ran out of the medication he is supposed to receive," the complaint read.

An independent physician contracted by Omar's attorney said that while in detention, Omar has not received appropriate treatment for his asthma, panic attacks, anxiety, or Parkinson’s disease, among other conditions.

"We consistently hear reports from people who ask for critical medical attention and they are denied," Shepherd said.

A transgender woman, who is being held in a men's dorm at the Aurora facility and faces repeat sexual harassment, hasn't been given the hormone medication since January that she had been taking for eight years. According to the complaint, she is depressed and feels hopeless.

Judith, a 42-year-old Mexican woman who is being held at the new 432-bed wing of the facility known as Aurora South, said she hasn't been receiving cortisone shots she received at a previous detention center for arm and knee injuries. Judith ("Judith" is a pseudonym she is using in the complaint out of fear of retaliation from ICE and the GEO Group) sustained her injuries while working in the kitchen of an immigration jail in Eloy, Arizona.

Four weeks after first requesting medical care, Judith was prescribed pills by a doctor in March that didn't help with her pain and caused an allergic reaction. Twice, she has authorized the transfer of her medical records from the Eloy facility in order to receive cortisone shots but hasn't been able to get them or see a specialist.

"I was transferred here in February 2019. Four months later, I have not had proper medical attention, no transfer of past medical records, no MRI, and the medication I have been given has caused me more harm," Judith said in the complaint. "I cannot take the pain any longer."

The complaint comes after the death of Johana Medina Leon, a transgender woman from El Salvador who died four days after she was released from ICE custody at a facility in New Mexico.

Earlier this month, the DHS Office of Inspector General published a report on unannounced visits at four ICE facilities and found safety issues as well as violations of detention standards.

The report noted that the Aurora facility placed detainees in disciplinary segregation in restrains when outside their cells. The OIG said that according to ICE standards being in disciplinary segregation isn't a valid reason to using restraints outside their cells. In its response to the findings, ICE said it has provided refresher training to staff on when it’s appropriate to use restraints and that a supervisor would be monitoring compliance via daily security camera reviews.


Geo Group provides on-site health care services at the Aurora facility. An earlier version of this post misstated who provided medical care to detainees there.

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