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Immigrants punished for not cleaning detention center, court papers suggest

The issue of possible retaliation by staff at the Colorado center surfaced during a recent congressional hearing

Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., had asked the chief executive of GEO Group during a July hearing whether immigrant detainees in a Colorado center were coerced to perform work.
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., had asked the chief executive of GEO Group during a July hearing whether immigrant detainees in a Colorado center were coerced to perform work. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Newly released documents suggest staff at a privately-run immigrant detention center in Colorado punished detainees with solitary confinement for failing to obey orders to clean the facility without pay.

Critics, including plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the facility’s operator, say the revelations show potential violations of government detention standards, and contradict testimony of the company’s executives to Congress earlier this year. 

The unsealed court documents are part of a class action lawsuit filed by current and former detainees against GEO Group Inc., which runs the Aurora Detention Center in Colorado and other facilities under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

The previously confidential incidents suggest that staff at the Aurora center coerced detainees to clean areas without pay, and punished those who refused.

According to ICE rules, cleaning the immediate area around the detainee’s bed is mandatory. Specifically, detainees are required to make their beds, take down any items hanging over it, and keep the surrounding floor clean of papers and debris.

“Refusing to clean assigned area” constitutes a “high moderate” offense punishable by 72 hours of segregation, according to ICE’s disciplinary rules.

However, any cleaning work beyond the mandatory requirements must be entirely voluntary and compensated with at least $1 per day, rules state. According to one 2009 incident log from the Aurora facility, the officer filing the report wrote he requested a detainee to clean the “common area floor” and sent him to segregation after he refused to do so.

In another report from 2011, a detainee “was assigned to spray off the tables, windows, and telephones for the day” and was sanctioned with segregation after he cursed at the officer, telling him, “you can’t make me clean.”

An incident record from 2011 recounts similar punishment for a person who refused to “mop dorm floor.” And multiple reports from 2014 note that detainees were placed “on the cleanup list and refused to clean.”

GEO Group rejected the conclusion that the incidents were against the rules.  

“The documents that were unsealed by the Court relate to instances where individuals were placed in Special Management Housing Units [solitary cells] for disciplinary infractions that fall outside of the Voluntary Work Program,” Pablo E. Paez, a GEO Group spokesperson, told CQ Roll Call. “In all instances, our employees appropriately followed the procedures and rules that govern the use of Special Management Housing Units, which are prescribed in detail in the federal government’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards.” 

The issue at the heart of the lawsuit has surfaced in recent congressional hearings. In July, Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., questioned GEO Group chief executive George C. Zoley during his testimony before the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations. The hearing largely focused on how private operators were tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Has GEO ever coerced immigration detainees into volunteering to perform work by threatening or imposing disciplinary segregation, or administrative segregation, solitary confinement or any other kind of sanction?” Neguse said, specifically focusing on the Aurora facility.

“Absolutely not,” Zoley responded. 

Neguse had also pointed out that GEO Group’s own senior vice president of business development had sent a letter to ICE in 2018 commenting on the lawsuit, saying that “to the extent that plaintiffs allege that disciplinary segregation is an unlawful threat for refusal to work, this section comes directly from ICE policies, which I should assist in defending.” 

That executive, David Venturella, was deposed in July 2020 as part of ongoing litigation. According to a transcript of that deposition, lawyers asked him to clarify what he was writing, specifically whether he was implying that ICE policies mandated segregation only in cases where detainees refused to clean the immediate area around their beds.

“I think it could be any work assignment,” he responded.

On Tuesday, Neguse told CQ Roll Call that the new unsealed court records “appear to show evidence that GEO sent immigrant detainees to solitary confinement for refusing to work, contradicting Mr. Zoley’s own testimony and in violation of ICE’s policies.” 

“Americans fully expect federal contractors — many of which receive millions of dollars in taxpayer money — to testify honestly when Congress exercises its oversight duties,” Neguse said. “Any attempt to mislead Congress, and thereby the American people, must be taken seriously, and the company must immediately clarify this matter without delay.”

Paez, the GEO Group spokesperson, said the company “strongly reject[s] this willful mischaracterization of Mr. Zoley’s Congressional testimony.” 

“As the video and transcript of his testimony clearly show, he was specifically addressing a question related to the Voluntary Work Program at ICE Processing Centers,” Paez said. The statement points out the rules pertaining to this work program have been in place for decades and became a part of the federal government’s detention standards under the Obama administration.

“Under no circumstances are individuals in our ICE Processing Centers placed in Special Management Housing Units for not participating in the Voluntary Work Program,” he said.

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