Moderated by Rick Badie
The Stewart Detention Center has been the cite of annual protests in which demonstrators call for its closing. The federal immigration detention center, 145 miles south of Atlanta, has been accused of treating inmates inhumanely and violating their rights, as one of today’s guest columnists asserts. The facility’s chaplain notes that critics are either misinformed or uninformed about the privately run center.
Immigration detainees exploited for profit
By Azadeh Shahshahani
More than 30,000 immigrant men and women were separated from their families during the holiday period. They were detained in the more than 250 facilities across the U.S. including the largest: the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin.
In the last 15 years, we have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the jailing of immigrants, from about 70,000 detained annually to more than 400,000. The cost of this system stands at $1.7 billion.
In the mid 1990s, Congress passed a series of harsh measures that led to a vast increase in unnecessary detention. This trend has been exacerbated by the private prison industry looking to exploit immigrant detention for profit. In 2009, approximately half the immigrant detainee population was housed in for-profit facilities.
In 2010, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S., grossed more than $1.7 billion in total revenue.
These corporations aggressively lobby the Department of Homeland Security and Congress. CCA and the GEO Group, another operator of prisons, spent more than $20 million on lobbying from 1999 to 2009.
Private immigration detention facilities are particularly ripe for abuse because there is little federal oversight to ensure that applicable standards are enforced. The 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) standards meant to guide operation of these facilities are not binding regulations and have not been applied to many for-profit detention facilities under contract with ICE. Without the threat of sanctions, compliance has been low, and violations are pervasive.
Since 2003, at least 24 people have died in immigration detention facilities operated by CCA.
The Stewart Detention Center is emblematic of the violations that plague the system.
From April 2009 to the summer of 2012, there was no doctor at Stewart. Currently, there is only one doctor and seven nurses on staff at the 1,752-bed facility. As the ACLU of Georgia documented in our May 2012 report, “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia,” it can take days or even weeks for medical requests to be answered. In addition, individuals with mental disabilities are routinely placed in solitary confinement, leading to further deterioration of their mental health.
CCA further gets detained immigrants to labor for $1 to $3 per day for work the corporation would have to hire regularly paid employees for.
As part of a national campaign to expose and close the 10 worst facilities in the country,more than 200 community members marched to Stewart in late November, calling for its closure. Among our speakers were individuals formerly detained at Stewart, such as Pedro Guzman.
“After 20 months away from home, you lose faith, you feel worthless,” Guzman said. “This place breaks you. The constant screaming and verbal abuse by the guards is just made to break your soul and handicap you.”
Stewart is not the exception, but the rule, in immigration detention today. It is unacceptable to spend billions in taxpayer dollars every year to contract with corporations such as CCA that perpetrate human rights abuses against this vulnerable population.
Azadeh Shahshahani is director of the national security/immigrants’ rights project for the ACLU of Georgia.
By Joseph Shields
Critics who make charges about the treatment of detainees and conditions in the Stewart Detention Center are either misinformed or uninformed. As its chaplain, what I see every day is an exceedingly clean and humane facility with professionals who treat those entrusted to their care with fairness, dignity and respect.
To do my job well, it’s essential to have my fingers on the pulse of Stewart’s 1,700-plus detainees. Obviously, their daily lives have changed from where they were before. My predecessor used to say that the one constant for every man is his faith. This understanding gives me and my 63 fellow chaplains in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) facilities nationwide a unique perspective and responsibility.
The first thing I do every morning is get my keys and open my mailbox. It’s on the way to the cafeteria, so every time a detainee goes to eat, he has the opportunity to leave a message. I also interact with detainees by eating lunch with them every day. Perhaps most important, I go to them. Every day I visit their dorms, including segregation. I make it a point to go to every dorm at least once a week.
Detainees call on me to help in many ways. It might be to minister to them, which I do in Spanish and English. I’ll frequently have 250 men attend our Friday services. Part of that is also distributing Bibles. Spanish- and English-language versions are in huge demand. I’m also often called in to deliver tough news to detainees, such as word of a family tragedy. And if there’s a man who is just down, I’ll go talk to him. If I get the sense that he’s depressed, I’ll refer him to the mental health experts we work with at the facility.
Detainees also ask me for legal advice, which I’m obviously not equipped to give. Free legal services offered by non-profits are increasingly difficult to come by, so I strongly encourage the men to take the legal orientation class offered at our facility. I tell them to plug in their earphones, listen hard and take good notes, and that it’s possible to successfully represent yourself.
Each detainee receives a medical check-up within the first 24 hours of entering our facility. The on-going medical care is high quality. It’s not unusual for us to even have one or two detainees each day who we take outside the care offered in our facility to visit a doctor or the hospital.
The food in the cafeteria is also high quality. Last week, after looking at the menu, I almost stayed for dinner. The cafeteria was serving meat lasagna, tossed salad with dressing, mixed vegetables, garlic bread, cookie cake and a beverage. There was a cheese lasagna option, too.
Operating correctional and detention facilities is a public service that comes with challenges. It’s not easy work. Nor is life easy for the detainees. There’s the real possibility that their lives will be very different going forward. Sometimes, I’m the one called in to mediate a dispute between a detainee and staff.
I am a proud employee of CCA’s Stewart Detention Center. First and foremost, I am a minister. My ethical responsibilities extend well above and beyond my employer. There is no conflict between my ethics and the respectful treatment and humane conditions provided to detainees by my employer.
Joseph Shields is chaplain at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin.