*Content warning: suicide, sexual abuse
On May 20, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced its plan to sever the contract between U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, and the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. This came after years of documented human rights abuses at Irwin and calls for its closure.
Private prison companies like CoreCivic contract with the federal government to cage more than 70 percent of detained immigrants.
“I have peace to know that another mother is not going to go through the same nightmare I went through,” said Wendy Dowe, a survivor of these abuses. Lourdes, a fellow survivor whose last name is omitted for safety reasons, echoed this feeling: “I am grateful that we were seen and heard and that the government acted. They heard us—that we are not just immigrants but human beings.”
Unfortunately, even before DHS’s announcement, ICE had already been transferring individuals from Irwin to the Stewart Detention Center, a deadly privately owned prison located about 100 miles away, in Lumpkin, Georgia.
The Stewart Detention Center, operated by private prison company CoreCivic, remains one of the largest and deadliest detention centers in the country. Eight men have died there in the last four years alone. And now, ICE has begun using Stewart to detain immigrant women.
It was women who suffered the most horrific abuses at the Irwin County Detention Center, including invasive gynecological procedures without consent. Since its inception, Stewart has repeatedly violated the human rights of those incarcerated there.
In May 2020, Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, a thirty-four-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, died from COVID-19 after being transferred from Stewart. It was Georgia’s first immigrant death in ICE custody due to COVID-19, and the second death nationally. His death, like so many others, could have been prevented.
Two months earlier, advocates and doctors in Georgia warned ICE that immigrant detention centers were not equipped to handle a COVID-19 outbreak, and urged them to release detained immigrants immediately.
As documented in the nonprofit group El Refugio’s recent report, “Cage of Fear,” ICE continued to detain immigrants in crowded prisons where medical neglect, lack of personal protective equipment, absence of social distancing, and unsanitary conditions remained rampant. In March 2020, more than 3,000 medical professionals and advocates urged ICE to release detained immigrants from custody, but the agency failed to do so.
Tragically, since Santiago’s passing, three more men have died in ICE custody at Stewart due to COVID-19 complications. The responsibility for the deaths of Felipe Montes, fifty-seven years old; Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, sixty-one years old; and Jose Guillen-Vega, seventy years old, lies in the hands of ICE.
For the last decade, advocates have raised red flags about human rights abuses occurring inside Stewart. Among them: a lack of medical care and mental health care, forced labor, arbitrary use of solitary confinement, unsanitary conditions, and the use of force against the detained population.
In a 2019 letter to Georgia Congressional delegates, Project South described the ongoing abuses, including the uptick of deaths by suicide related to aggressive use of solitary confinement. It noted that two men with a known history of mental illess, Jeancarlo Jiménez-Joseph and Efrain Romero De La Rosa, died by suicide after being put in solitary confinemen.
In 2017, Jiménez-Joseph told medical professionals at Stewart that he felt suicidal and needed a higher dosage of his medication. While his teleconference appointment to see a psychiatrist was delayed by several months, he told a nurse at Stewart that he was hearing voices directing him to kill himself. Several days later, he jumped nine feet off of a two-tier ledge, for which he was punished by being sentenced to twenty days in solitary confinement. On the nineteenth day, Jiménez-Joseph was found hanging by his bedsheets from the sprinkler head.
Earlier that same day, officials at Stewart denied Jiménez-Joseph a visit from El Refugio, which was concerned about Jiménez-Joseph’s health after speaking to his mother.
In 2019, ICE buried Pedro Arriago-Santoya, a forty-four-year-old immigrant who died in its custody at Stewart. He was placed in an unmarked grave in Atlanta after ICE failed to find his next of kin. Last February, immigrant rights groups and community members came together to give him a dignified memorial service.
Private prison companies like CoreCivic contract with the federal government to cage more than 70 percent of detained immigrants. In fiscal year 2019, according to the Detention Watch Network, the U.S. government detained more than 500,000 in a vast network of more than 200 jails across the country.
As for CoreCivic, a fourth of its contracts are with ICE, despite the for-profit company’s appalling track record of abuses. According to the group Grassroots Leadership, state audits have documented “staff mismanagement, widespread violence, delays in medical treatment and unacceptable living conditions including a lack of access to toilet facilities, with prisoners forced to defecate in plastic containers and bags.”
There have also been several reports of sexual abuse in CoreCivic prisons. A 2015 lawsuit accused a former “escort officer and resident supervisor” of sexually assaulting at least eight immigrant women at T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Texas.
Tragic deaths have also happened. In 2004, four guards were indicted for beating incarcerated woman, Estelle Richardson, to death. Her autopsy report found that she had “four broken ribs, a cracked skull, and internal organ injuries,” indicating she had been slammed on a hard surface.
In 2013, Autumn Miller sued CoreCivic, allegeding that she was denied medical care when she went into labor at one of the company’s state jails in Dallas, Texas. She ultimately gave birth prematurely to baby Gracie in a toilet in her cell. Gracie died four days later.
These gruesome violations should come as no surprise when looking at CoreCivic’s founder, T. Don Hutto, and his career in corrections. In 1967, Hutto became warden of Ramsey plantation in Texas, where he used prison labor to pick cotton. In 1972, as commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, he began a “prison rodeo,” where people paid money to watch incarcerated individuals in uniform ride horses and chase pigs—sometimes resulting in injuries.
Hutto also continued prison labor in plantations in Arkansas. At a federal hearing, individuals who were incarcerated—or rather, enslaved—at these plantations testified to being “punished by being cuffed behind their backs, put on the hood of a truck, and driven at high speeds through the plantation, sometimes causing them to fall off.” Others said they were “beaten with blackjacks, stripped, and left naked in an unlit ‘quiet cell’ for twenty-eight days for refusing to labor in the fields.”
To this day, forced labor continues to be an issue at CoreCivic prisons like Stewart, where there is an ongoing lawsuit for forcing immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day and punishing them if they refuse.
There is no way to reform institutions like CoreCivic or ICE. Stewart must be shut down, ICE must be abolished, and the Biden Administration must immediately discontinue all contracts with private prisons.