Immigration officials open GEO detention center to media only as hundreds of inmates are subjected to disease quarantine

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AURORA | Inside the Aurora immigration detention center on Monday there were 1,364 detainees — 357 quarantined for possibly being in contact with a case of the mumps or chicken pox — eight Colorado journalists and no federal or local lawmakers.

Only credentialed media, without any electronic recording devices, were allowed in for a tour of the site, led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials along with site operators from the GEO Group Inc., which privately owns and runs the detention facility. Notably absent from the group was Aurora Congressman Jason Crow and Aurora City Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who both showed up at the facility Feb. 20 unannounced to facility supervisors and ICE staff and requested an “inspection”  of the facility.

The duo’s request was denied, as staff said there is a specific process federal and local lawmakers must follow to enter the facility. Crow was reportedly turned down again two more times — once on Friday and another time for the Monday facility tour with media.

John Fabbricatore, the acting ICE field office director in Denver, told reporters the agency thought it best to keep politics and media separate, and that Crow possibly would have been granted a tour on Feb. 20 if it weren’t for the media he had alerted he would be there.

Crow cited public health concerns last month and on Monday for his repeated requests for entry into the detention center.

“Despite being faced with multiple reports of poor conditions and disease outbreaks, ICE has repeatedly blocked our office from performing basic congressional oversight, including from joining today’s media tour,” Crow said in an emailed statement Monday following the media tour.

“This disturbing pattern raises the obvious question: why is ICE delaying oversight of this facility? I will continue to push for transparency and accountability until we are allowed a tour of the facility, receive responses to our written questions, and know that ICE is providing the proper treatment and care to its detainees. The constituents of the sixth district deserve to know what the government is doing on their behalf in our community.”

ICE spokeswoman Alethea Smock said the media tour was not a result of Crow’s requests, but had been in the works since the end of January. A Denver Westword reporter confirmed that.

Reporters were guided through the facility to see where detainees spend most of their time, a legal library, the medical care wing and where food is prepared. In most instances, the detainees are four to a room, like a typical county jail. There are seven showers per 80 inmates. Detainees are allowed four hours of recreational time outside each day if the weather allows, staff said.

Staff also showed the quarantined areas.

There was one confirmed case of mumps at the north Aurora facility in February and two cases of chickenpox, according to ICE officials. Six “pods” — out of a total 13 pods, which hold up to 80 detainees — are quarantined at the facility, facility staff said. Many of those detainees are quarantined for most of March.

Fabbricatore and facility staff said the number of detainees quarantined right now is unusual for the site, but cited an increase in detainees from the southern border as to why there have been more cases of chickenpox. Detainees suspected of being in contact with the detainee confirmed of having mumps are quarantined for 24 days.

Center staff and Tri-County Health Department officials say they are working together to prevent the spread of more cases of mumps, including vaccinating detainees and staff members.

Crow and Hiltz also called for an explanation for a mysterious annex building, that added 432 beds to the facility, in January. Smock confirmed the annex last month.

Fabbricatore said the annex, which is the original building that was first opened in 1987 and later closed in 2002, was reopened to accommodate more detainees from the border.  He estimated that nearly 800 of the detainees are from the border. 

That annex facility is slated to be open until April 27. Fabbricatore said he’s received no indication from ICE that the 432 beds will be extended beyond that.