ACLU Says South Florida Private Prison Giant Is Torturing Immigration Detainees

The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton.
The GEO Group's headquarters in Boca Raton. Eflatmajor7th / Wikimedia Commons
Boca Raton's GEO Group is one of the most powerful private-prison companies in America — and a major player in state and federal politics. GEO throws campaign money at Florida lawmakers from both parties: Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, Gov. Rick Scott, Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, and the majority of the Florida Legislature have taken thousands from GEO despite constant complaints from progressives and human-rights activists who say the company profits from destroying the lives of others.

Well, here's yet another reason Florida politicians should drop GEO Group like the plague: The American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that the company is torturing whistleblowers at its private immigration detention facility in Aurora, Colorado. GEO runs the facility on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to the ACLU, ICE agents at GEO's 1,500-bed Colorado detention center are retaliating against Iraqi nationals who have joined an ACLU class-action lawsuit to stop the U.S. from deporting them. The ACLU says employees at the GEO facility are denying Iraqis food, water, and access to the restroom to intentionally make their lives a living hell.

"GEO, the second largest immigration detention facility in the country, is a tightly regulated, colorless institution with bare cement walls, large metal doors that lock at every threshold, and scores of prisoners in scrubs," the ACLU writes. "Each of the detainees we interviewed provided accounts of mistreatment. These accounts were consistent, as was their palpable fear of death if ultimately deported to Iraq."

The ACLU writes today that the Trump administration agreed to take Iraq off its list of countries covered under the so-called Muslim ban if Iraq agreed to accept ICE deportees. The ACLU has since sued, but the organization now says ICE agents at the GEO facility are trying to make detainees miserable so they choose to get deported. The ACLU writes:
Since the court’s ruling, ICE appears to have ramped up its efforts to make the lives of Iraqis in custody so unbearable that they will “voluntarily” sign away their rights to reopen their immigration cases or pursue asylum. The Iraqis have been singled out and denied food, water, and access to the restroom.

One man, who came to the United States as a refugee in 1976, reflected that if he goes back to Iraq, he will be tortured and killed. Still, he feels that his experiences at the hands of ICE are “a different way of torture.” He has told his wife that he is considering just signing the form and going back to Iraq.

In Arizona and Colorado, and on the plane traveling between the two locations, ICE guards referred to the Iraqis as “camel jockey,” “rag head,” and “terrorist.” Guards at GEO referred to one of our clients as ‘Al Qaeda’ and told him, “You Iraqis are the worst people in here. We can’t stand you Iraqis.” When he tried to say that he has rights, he was told that he doesn’t have any rights because he was “an alien.”

ICE guards in Arizona and Colorado have openly pressured Iraqi nationals to sign away their right to fight their immigration cases. Some guards told the detainees that their situations were hopeless and urged them to sign forms agreeing to voluntary deportation, without counsel present. Some Iraqis apparently succumbed to the pressure. The brave men we spoke to have decided to stay and fight. 
Miami New Times' sister newspaper Phoenix New Times has covered the plight of Iraqi nationals trapped in an Arizona detention center run by CoreCivic (formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America), GEO Group's main competitor. In July, an Arizona judge blocked the deportation of 1,400 Iraqi Chaldean Catholics on the grounds they could be tortured for their religious beliefs and ties to the United States.

In 2013, the Huffington Post reported that the CCA/CoreCivic's lobbying firms have donated more than $20,000 to South Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In 2011, Wasserman Schultz threw her support behind a plan to build a private, CCA-run immigration facility in South Florida. That decision sparked protests and has cast a shadow over her recent bids for reelection.

But of the two companies, it's Boca's GEO Group that remains the major political power in Florida. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP), GEO has given $7.8 million to 885 candidates across the nation over the past 17 years. The group rains money in Florida: It is honestly difficult to find a state politician who has not taken at least a tiny amount of money from the company in that time period. According to NIMSP records, the group has sent checks to the majority of the state Legislature in Tallahassee, Rubio has taken $30,500 from GEO, Curbelo has received $11,000, and Nelson has accepted $5,000.

Other recipients include U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson, Mario Diaz-Balart, Charlie Crist, and Governor Scott. GEO is still donating today: The group gave former state Rep. Jose Feliz "Pepi" Diaz $3,000 in his current race for the state Senate seat vacated by N-word-dropping ex-lawmaker Frank Artiles.

Last year, the Miami Herald reported that GEO absolutely vomited cash at state Senate President Joe Negron and his wife Rebecca, who ran for the GOP nomination for Senate last year before Rubio announced his plans to run for reelection. The Herald reported that GEO gave the couple a combined $288,000 in a single election cycle.

"It is tragic that these individuals, who fear persecution in Iraq because of their religion and connection to America, are now being persecuted by agents of the United States government," the ACLU wrote last week.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.