Stewart Detention which is located in Lumpkin, Georgia, is a private prison under the organization Corrections Corporation of America (Core Civic). Private prisons differ a lot from public prisons in the way that they make a profit from incarcerating people through contracts with the government. These prisons exist to take away the responsibility that comes with running a prison from the government. The government will sentence, classify, and assign inmates, but the corporation is free to decide how to run their prison.
According to journalist Lautaro Grinspan, “Immigrants facing deportation are less likely to have access to a lawyer in Georgia than in nearly every other state.” This is backed by immigration court data that showed more than 40,000 pending deportation cases in the state of Georgia of May 2021, and only around 15,500 of them had attorney representation–That’s 38.75%. As recently as August 6, 2021 there have been 25,526 total detainees in ICE detention. Of those people, 20,053 out of 25,526, or 78.6% have no criminal record.
In addition to the legal underrepresentation, Stewart Detention is more than 100 miles out of Atlanta. It is so far out of the city that Lumpkin, Georgia is nothing more than a small rural town where the immigrant detainees outnumber residents. As stated by Grinspan, “Unlike criminal defendants, immigrants do not have a right to government-appointed counsel if they can’t afford private representation.”
ICE’s refusal to do the right thing & free the hundreds of immigrants across the U.S. reveals the true purpose of these ICE jails: to turn a profit, not protect people. #FreeThemAll #ShutDownStewart #PeopleOverProfit pic.twitter.com/X11ciXGxFS
— Southern Poverty Law Center (@splcenter) October 29, 2020
This means that these detainees have to rely on pro bono representation, or plan ahead by having savings in case of being detained. Due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted immigrant workers’ employment status, having much of an emergency savings is impossible. Especially in households that required hospitalization from COVID.
Many immigrants in Georgia are very aware of this issue, and out of fear have created Facebook groups to warn one another about potential police stops on the road. “Retenes y Redadas en Georgia, Manteniendo Familias Unidas” (Checkpoints and Raids, Keeping Families United). This particular group has over 12 thousand members.
COVID Cases and Neglect
In the height of COVID-19, neglect worsened in Stewart Detention. At its worst, 700 cases of COVID-19 infections were found at the center. In mid-June of this year, Stewart detention had the second-highest overall COVID rate per 100,000 population among Georgia’s 159 counties. On the Stewart detention site, CoreCivic, claims:
“CoreCivic is committed to providing high quality, compassionate treatment to all those in our care… “We don’t deprive in any way immigrant families’ access to health care, which is not typically a function we perform, but instead is usually provided by the federal government through the Department of Homeland Security.”
Four people have died of COVID, “the highest total at any ICE detention center in the nation,” along with a history of two suicides in the detention. As a result of the neglect, many detainees have joined a lawsuit against the Stewart detention center. In this lawsuit, there were claims of staff cutting off phone communication, restriction of visitor and outdoor recreation time.
A complaint, filed with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reads, “We [detainees] haven’t seen the sunlight for a week; they have taken away our right to recreation within this prison.” This was after a group of 72 detainees attempted to protest by refusing to go back inside. These detainees were met with pepper spray.
— Southern Poverty Law Center (@splcenter) February 18, 2021
As a result of the infamous history that surrounds Stewart, organizations like El Refugio have come together to create a hospitality house offering meals and lodging at no cost. Their main message to why they do what they do is based on their firm belief that these detainees have the right to be recognized:
“We believe our most powerful role is simply to be present to the people we visit in detention – to recognize their full humanity, to see them face to face and to hear them.”
There are only a few organizations like these that help out these detained folks in southern Georgia. Most community support is up north in the city. Nonetheless, they are an important factor in giving back humanity to all people affected by detention centers like Stewart detention.
Flor Chavez Barriga is an undergraduate student at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA studying History and Sociology with a focus on research. She was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and grew up in Atlanta surrounded by the rich history of Martin Luther King’s legacy. She previously attended Freedom University where she was given the opportunity to achieve higher education, while also learning about collective action and human rights. Flor is passionate about the south’s reaction to immigration with its restrictive policies and infamous detention centers. She hopes to highlight the voices of communities in the south that have helped combat all the hurdles that continue making immigrant lives harder.