DENVER – The ACLU of Colorado on Tuesday filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Colorado against GEO Group, Inc., which operates the immigrant detention facility in Aurora, for the death of Kamyar Samimi in December 2017.
Samimi, a legal permanent resident originally from Iran, was 64 years old when he died in December 2017 at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility while in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Samimi was arrested in November 2017 by ICE agents more than 12 years after he was convicted of a cocaine possession count in Arapahoe County. While he was in custody at the Aurora facility, he “fell ill,” in early December, ICE said, but Samimi died after being taken to a hospital.
He had become a permanent resident in May 1978 but had an application for full citizenship denied in January 1987 because he did not submit the correct documents, ICE said. ICE said since Samimi had previously been convicted of drug possession – despite him not having any other criminal record since that arrest – that he was up for removal from the country.
The ACLU investigated Samimi’s death through Freedom of Information requests and other interviews, as well as a lawsuit earlier this year when they did not receive responsive documents, and released a report earlier this year, "Cashing in on Cruelty," in which they detailed Samimi’s death and that of a 46-year-old man who died of a heart attack at the facility in 2012, along with other lengthy details of alleged abuse and neglect within the facility.
In Samimi's death , the ACLU alleged that doctors at the facility cut off Samimi's prescription of methadone, which he had taken daily for 20 years to manage chronic back pain, leading to withdrawals while he was in custody in November 2017. At one point, Samimi called a friend and told him he was "sicker than hell" and "dying here," the ACLU report said. An autopsy report indicated that Samimi's cardiac arrest may have been linked to a methadone withdrawal.
The ICE facility, which holds about 1,500 detainees, has faced intense criticism for months from ACLU and other immigration activists. During one rally outside the facility in July , protesters replaced the building's U.S. flag with a Mexican flag. There have since been protests at the facility’s warden’s home and at the facility as well.
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, the ACLU attorneys contest that the GEO Group’s only full-time physician at the facility took Samimi off the methadone he’d been taking for 20 years on his first day at the facility, forcing him to go through withdrawal.
“The order was medically unjustifiable, and it precipitated the ugly and ultimately fatal consequences that ensued,” ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein said in a statement.
The suit names the GEO Group and physician Jeffrey Elam Peterson, M.D., as defendants in the lawsuit and asks a judge to respond to a claim of a violation of the Rehabilitation Act by claiming Samimi was discriminated against for having an opiate use disorder, which the ACLU claims was a disability.
The suit says that GEO Group staff were not prepared to deal with Samimi’s withdrawals after they pulled him off methadone and that they called him a “drug-seeker” and failed to properly deliver his doses of medication, then failed to respond as his health deteriorated.
The ACLU says that even after ICE and GEO Group increased the capacity of the Aurora facility by 500 people this year, only one full-time physician remains on the staff.
Samimi’s daughter, Neda Samimi-Gomez, called her father’s death devastating for her family.
“We will never have more memories with my dad. When I have a family, my own child will never have memories of their grandfather,” she said in a statement. “We never want this to happen to another family, which is why it’s been so important to have the ACLU take our father’s case. We want everyone to know what happened so that it never happens again.”
The plaintiffs are asking for compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees and costs should a judge find in their favor, and for interest from the date of each violation.
The GEO Group denied the allegations in a statement Tuesday.
“GEO strongly rejects these allegations. The Processing Centers we manage on behalf of ICE are top-rated by independent accreditation entities, including the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, and provide high-quality residential care," a spokesperson said. "We are committed to providing a safe and secure environment for everyone in our care.”