Reports are mounting of a living nightmare in Lumpkin, Georgia, at Stewart, a 1,750-bed detention facility housing immigrants facing potential deportation.
According to multiple interviews with detained immigrants at Stewart, they are dealing with maggots in food, improper medical care, sweltering temperatures, and in many cases no communication with staff due to no translators on site. The Corrections Corporation of America operates the facility for profit, adding fuel to an already roaring fire of opposition.
While President Obama’s expanded deportation relief is a welcome move — the truth is that without addressing immigration detention, immigrants will continue to suffer horrifying conditions in detention centers.
Current U.S. legislation is read by some members of Congress to require that at least 34,000 immigrants be held in detention beds at all times at a cost of $2 billion annually. This would mean that tens of thousands of immigrants will continue to be detained every year even if others are granted reprieve from deportation.
That’s why executive action by the president on deportations should be accompanied by closing inhumane facilities like Stewart and ending the bed quota once and for all. Alternatives to detention are effective, much less costly, and far more humane than institutional detention.
Resistance inside Stewart has grown at the same time as external pressure to close the facility has mounted.
This past summer, dozens of detained immigrants there participated in a hunger strike. When a group of detained immigrants organized to bring concerns forward, things got ugly. There was a facility-wide, 24-hour lockdown in response, and participating units were shut down longer. Pepper spray was reportedly used against hunger strikers.
This retaliatory desire to shut down opposition in the face of gross human rights concerns is unacceptable.
Ismael, an immigrant detained at Stewart, had a stroke on March 9, 2014, and passed out in his unit. After being released from the hospital back into ICE’s custody, he received no further treatment, follow-up, or even a lower bunk. After a second stroke a month later, the detention center allowed him pain pills for resulting headaches, but no treatment or rehabilitation. Finally, before even reaching his hearing, Ismael decided under duress to sign his deportation papers and leave behind his life in the U.S. to avoid further suffering.
Alcides became a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. in 1996. He proudly served his country in Iraq, and is now a disabled veteran and wheelchair-bound. At Stewart, he was made to stand, causing him severe pain, and he has since lost feeling in his legs altogether. He went three and a half weeks without showering due to lack of assistance. After use of pepper spray at the facility in response to the hunger strike, he suffered seizures and was not provided with the correct medication upon return to the facility from the hospital. He joined the hunger strike in an attempt to get access to his prescribed medication.
This treatment is inhumane, un-American, and do recall, it is also for profit.
In a 2012 report by the ACLU of Georgia, “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia,” we found that Stewart has consistently failed to provide basic medical care, hygienic conditions, or edible and adequate food for those in detention. Detained men who spoke up suffered retaliation: a commonly used tactic was placing them in solitary. Stewart has been ranked by watchdogs like the Detention Watch Network as one of the worst facilities in the country.
Despite years of advocacy by detained immigrants, their family members, and human rights organizations, conditions have worsened.
This coming weekend, hundreds of people from across the country will converge at the gates of Stewart to once again call for closure of this facility.
The time has come for the Obama administration and ICE to shut Stewart down, and for this painful chapter in the American treatment of immigrants to close.
By Azadeh N. Shahshahani
This article originally appeared in The Hill.
Shahshahani serves as National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director for the ACLU of Georgia and president of the National Lawyers Guild. She is also a member of the Detention Watch Network.