When Pedro Guzman walked out the door of the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, he wasn't only leaving behind the four walls he had been detained in for nearly 19 months. He was also leaving behind inadequate food portions, overcrowding, extreme temperatures and unclean clothing.
These are some of the conditions at Stewart and three other centers that house immigrant detainees across Georgia, found in "Prisoners of Profit," a report recently released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia. The report detailed widespread lapses in standards as well as punitive treatment of immigrants who were mentally ill or filed grievances about conditions at the detention centers.
Of the four centers reviewed, two are run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the biggest private prison companies in the country, and one is run by Detention Management LLC in partnership with Municipal Corrections. In response to the 180-page ACLU report, the CCA released a point-by-point refutation, alleging in most instances that it had no record of the abuses claimed or that the allegations were false.
Azadeh Shahshahani, director of the National Security and Immigrant Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia said that, in many instances, the ACLU "felt that the CCA response was unsatisfactory, such as the explanation for why we were denied access to the segregation unit at the Stewart Detention Center" when the researchers were able to get access at two other facilities. In others, however, they confirmed abuses that had been recorded by the ACLU's investigation.
What It Looks Like on the Inside
The Stewart Detention Center is the largest immigration detention center in the country with the highest deportation rate in the country - with a capacity of 1,752 beds, it is expected that 98.8 percent will leave the detention center when they are leaving the country. In 2010, the Stewart Immigration Court issued 8,731 deportations.
That makes Guzman one of the lucky 1.2 percent. He was placed in deportation proceedings when a letter for him to check in with immigration about his visa was sent to the wrong address and he failed to appear at the meeting. Though his attempts to have his case reopened were repeatedly unsuccessful and his planned appearances before the immigration judge were canceled up to 12 times, he was eventually reunited with his wife and son.
But he didn't feel so lucky when he was on the inside.
"You ask me how I did it? I don't know. I think I was lost and leading someone else's life because that's for sure how it felt for me," said Guzman. "Every day I was looking up and keeping myself busy and thinking about what my wife was going through on the outside."
The ACLU of Georgia's report found conditions including prohibitively expensive phone rates, dropped calls, a broken air condition for two weeks during the Georgia summer, unclean "pods," five showers to be used by 58 people, low water quality, inconsistent running water, unclean underwear, going without food for up to 13 hours, few abilities for recreation, few medical staff, few Spanish-speaking staff throughout the jail and detainees with mental health issues being put into solitary confinement.
Guzman echoes many of these complaints.
"The recreation is no good at all, it's horrible," said Guzman, alleging that the hour allowed for recreation was often only 40 minutes by the time they reached the recreation area. "They had the water cooler all contaminated on the floor and everyone is drinking from the same place. The dog drinks out of a cleaner pot than I was drinking."
And the little recreation time barely broke the boredom of confinement. When the detainees used plastic bags to "kill 5 to 5 hours a day braiding some necklace, you are getting in trouble because they call it destroying CCA property."
The small indignities add up, said Guzman, who feared that he would never be released.
"They are in control," he said of the guards at Stewart. "That is the whole thing. They want to feel superior than you are. It's all bad reinforcement they are using on us."
Shahshahani also has concerns about what the ACLU of Georgia was not allowed to see in Stewart, specifically the segregation unit.
"It immediately raised a red flag," she said. "What is the facility trying to hide? What are we not able to see for ourselves that the detainees in segregation are being placed under?"
Before publication, the ACLU allowed CCA to submit responses to the report.
The ACLU report said that "if a detainee files a grievance, he is sometimes placed in segregation until he has a hearing. In addition, some detainees have mentioned that detainees who filed grievances were subjected to retaliatory behavior by the CCA officers." The CCA called the claim "incorrect."
In response, the CCA said Stewart had a "robust and effective grievance process. Detainees are not placed in segregation or retaliated against in any way for utilizing the grievance process. Detainees are encouraged, through the detainee handbook, orientation videos and postings throughout the facility, to understand and abide by the rules. They know they can make formal or informal verbal complaints and file formal grievances. They can appeal grievance decisions at the facility level and, if dissatisfied with that result, appeal to ICE."
Similarly, claims of detainees being told to work despite medical orders were dismissed due to lack of records.
The ACLU report found that Eduardo Zuniga, who was on medical orders to rest, was threatened with "the hole" if he did not go back to work.
The CCA's response: "Stewart has no documentation on this issue and no evidence that it occurred."
In other places, said Shahshahani, the CCA confirmed detainees' assertions. When detainees in the kitchen wanted to stop working and were told that they would be disciplined for doing so, CCA responded that "the matter was investigated and corrective action was taken by October 6. The inmates were moved back to the correct units, any disciplinary charges were expunged and all involved staff were appropriately counseled."
Oversight Sorely Missing
But the larger issue is a lack of consistent oversight.
The US is bound to adhere to international human rights treaties, including the Convention Against Torture, and the CCA told Truthout that it runs its facilities based on guidelines from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is also charged with providing oversight of the facilities, and Shahshahani said that there is a monitor stationed at the facility.
But the standards for immigration detention facilities are not binding regulations. And with the growth in private immigration detention being pushed by Georgia's punitive immigration bill and the lack of transparency that comes with a facility being run privately, the standards often slip through the cracks, said Shahshahani.
"The violations that we documented raise serious questions about the extent of the oversight at the facilities," said Shahshahani. "The violations run counter to ICE's own standards. We started interviewing detainees back in the summer of 2008 and the conditions remain inadequate and substandard."
The ACLU of Georgia is now calling for ICE to stop detaining immigrants at two facilities - Stewart and the Irwin Count Detention Center- "because of the extent of the documented violations."