Stewart Detention Center

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.

Critics misinformed

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.

20 comments Add your comment


January 4th, 2013
6:12 pm

What saddens me is that my fiancé has been here since he was 14. He was brought here by his parents. Not his fault. The United States is all he knows now. He has nothing back in brazil. He has been raising my daughter as his own. Supporting her and spending valuable time with her. When her biological father doesn’t do that. He has turned his back on her. He is part of the United States Army and they don’t even make him pay child’s support. Without my fiancé I don’t know what I will do. Places like this find pleasure in taking loved ones away. These are people too!!!!!! Does obamas law mean nothing.. This will be a long road. But I’ve been up for days doing research after research.. I will find JUSTICE!!!!!

ATL Born and Raised

January 4th, 2013
4:30 pm

“I say round-up all of the illegal aliens and send them back to their respective countries. Afterwards, we will have no need for prisons littered throughout the United States, public or private.”

You are an idiot. Why don’t you do a quick Google search and see who actually makes up the majority of inmates in our prisons? Hint: not immigrants.


January 4th, 2013
2:41 pm

I have called this place since 8 this morning.. I have tried several different numbers
for stewart and not one time has someone answered.. Why are these people getting
paid?? To mistreat our loved ones. What goes


January 4th, 2013
2:04 pm

Close this place down!! These innocent people don’t deserve to be treated like their in prison for murder. Murders don’t even get this mistreated in prisons!!!!!!

Rich Pellegrino

January 4th, 2013
12:13 am

Hmmmm…..a paid employee of this private prison company is somehow an objective source of information. Why not ask real ministers and chaplains who voluntarily and not for pay visit detainees there, like Anton Flores. I think the credibility of this guest columnist’s testimony is flawed. Of course he will defend his employer.


January 3rd, 2013
10:50 pm

I visit men at Stewart monthly, and have heard complaints like those reported here countless times. I don’t know who Rev. Shields is talking to, but apparently they are not the same men I’m visiting. I would encourage all who question the validity of Ms. Shahshahani’s comments and the ACLU report to actually meet some of the men and families affected by this system and hear their stories for themselves.


January 3rd, 2013
7:58 pm

As a U.S. citizen, the wife of a former detainee, Pedro Guzman, and a woman who firmly believes in God and our Savior, Jesus Christ. I feel betrayed and deeply saddened that a man of God would endorse and work for, an enormous corporation that is mistreating and wrongfully detaining immigrants on a daily basis. My husband now has his permanent residency after a year and a half of being detained at Stewart Detention Center. He was treated like an animal on a daily basis, corralled, fed inedible food, screamed at, denied visits, and threatened with solitary confinement when he spoke up for those that were mistreated. Taxpayers dollars paid to keep him from our young son and from me. The corporation and the system are both unjust. Please Mr. Shields, please stand on the side of love and follow the word of God instead of defending your paycheck.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 19:33-34


January 3rd, 2013
6:13 pm

gdrla, Isn’t there a difference between prison and an immigration detention center? All bad guys and girls in the first and unconvicted folks in the second?

Rebecca Smith Alvarado

January 3rd, 2013
4:13 pm

I have been to Stewart a few times as an advocate, investigating the deplorable conditions stated in the AJC article. Sadly , I can assure you that these claims are true. I am ashamed that my government has farmed out prisoner care to for profit corporations who must keep the beds full, no matter the human cost.

Brent Forkner

January 3rd, 2013
3:56 pm

Who shall we believe, a corporate shill, or thousands of voices and bodies raised in protest? Does Chaplain Joseph Shields have a staff? Or is he, like the lone doctor, solely responsible for more than 1700 souls incarcerated by CCA at Lumpkin? He says he sees each of them once a week, which calculates to more than 240 folks per day, more than 30 per hour on an 8-hour shift with no time to take a break. How can anyone in good conscience, and especially a well-educated and well-paid professional, recommend legal self-representation in the byzantine coils of immigration courts and laws to individuals who cannot read or speak English? Anyone with any experience or sense knows that “legal” English is an entirely different language at best. And by the way, what did Chaplain Shields have for dinner that night when he chose not to eat lasagna, salad and “cookie cake”? Does he remember the dinner he actually ate in such exquisite detail?