Thursday, June 28, 2012

Inside an immigration detention center

by Katie Smith

The Supreme Court's ruling to uphold Arizona's tough immigration laws is likely to influence Georgia's immigration laws, which bear an eerie resemblance to those of Arizona. With the passing of Georgia HB 87 last year, which is in an appeals process of its own, a peek into Georgia's treatment of “illegal” immigrants reveals an appalling situation. With 2000 detainees and counting, Georgia houses the country's largest immigration detention center, Stewart Detention Center.

Stewart Detention Center (SDC) is not a state or federally run prison. Rather, it is privately owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), who profits handsomely from it and all its centers. According to Prisoners for Profit, the ACLU's report on immigration corrections facilities in Georgia, CCA's annual revenue in 2010 was $1.7 billion. They even have their own NYSE symbol, which you can find on their Investor Relations page. Also of note, CCA is the country's largest private prison company with locations in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

SDC is isolated quietly amongst the trees and kudzu of the not-so-scenic city of Lumpkin. There are practically no signs of civilization near the center. Not even a standard, random, small-town McDonald's can be found. This alone poses one of the largest roadblocks for detainees and their visiting families.

Undocumented immigrants from all over the southeast and beyond are detained at SDC. The largest concentration of inmates is from the Atlanta and suburban Atlanta areas, making a visit a minimum three hour drive for detainees' families. The secluded location leaves one wondering if it was specifically chosen to deter visitors and legal help. If that objective was in mind, then it certainly was successful. Most detainees rarely have visitors or legal representation.

Any possible interaction with detainees is strictly completely non-contact, done through a glass window and a wall with a phone. No hugging your children, no kissing your wife, and no signing documents with your lawyer, if you are lucky enough to find one. SDC is notorious for failure to provide detainees information legal representation, especially if it's pro bono. Coupled with a poor law library and non-confidential visits, it's no wonder the deportation rate is so striking.

Hearings and client meetings often take place over the phone. Frighteningly, the ACLU found documented instances of immigration judges and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers coercing detainees to sign stipulated orders of removal, a policy that would allow detainees to be deported without a hearing before a judge. Many immigrants who may in fact be eligible for citizenship end up signing over rights they didn't realize they had. Not surprisingly, in 2010, Stewart Immigration Court had the nation's highest deportation rate, 98.8%, deporting 8,731 immigrants.

Detainees are allowed one visitor or group of visitors, such as a family, per week for an hour at a time. The week ends on Saturday and begins on Sunday, so visitors can travel Saturday, visit, then try to find a place to stay overnight, and go back Sunday for the next week's visit. Unfortunately, that means the detainee cannot have another visitor until the following Sunday. Naturally, they usually go two weeks without a visit because families don't want to drive there for a one hour visit just on Sunday.

Upon first entry, the contrast of beautifully maintained, fragrant roses and gardenias against fences double wrapped in razor wire is sets the stage for the rest of the medium-security center. Visitors must first identify themselves at one gate before they are buzzed into a cage-like enclosure until they are buzzed through the second gate. Once buzzed in, visitors walk down a rather long, wide sidewalk, also adorned with beautiful, potted plants, and a little grass before the daunting razor wire, until they reach the door of the waiting room, which they may freely enter.

Considering SDC is the country's largest immigration detention center, the waiting area is remarkably small. It's comprised of about 30 seats, all of which are a little too close to be cozy. Amenities include three price-gouging vending machines, one for snacks, two for drinks. The waiting area is adorned with modern décor featuring handsomely framed board executives' photos, cliché business mottos, and “motivational” posters. Of note is the poster with a close-up of a flower, framed in a thick black matte which reads, “Customer Service.” Of course, what prison would be complete without the coup de grace of irony, an American flag?

Notice no mention of water fountains or toilets. Those standard facilities are not a part of the waiting room. In order to make use of them, one must be carrying nothing but the clothes on one's back, show ID for verification, pass through a metal detector, and wait to be escorted by a guard to the rest room. Several women struggled to discreetly remove their bras, which set off the metal detector so sensitive it would make the TSA weep in joy. The aforementioned women were instructed to leave their bras with someone or to put them in a locker.

Once escorted to the restroom, one will find exactly two rooms, one for men, one for women. Each room contains only one toilet. Weekends being particularly busy, many visitors waited well over an hour to make use of the restroom.

Aside from there being only one toilet per gender, the main reason for the backup was lack of guards willing to escort visitors. Perhaps the only capable guard worked the “front desk,” which was really a table with a luggage scanner, a computer, a copier, and a phone that allows her to page guards and buzz in visitors. Unfortunately, her competence put her in a very small minority of SDC employees. She repeatedly paged guards to the waiting room, guards repeatedly ignored the pages. When guards finally did arrive, they would claim to be busy, but when asked, would never explain what exactly kept them so occupied.

As several families waited, struggling to cram themselves into the tiny waiting room, little by little, some visitors were allowed to trickle in. The center is open for visitation from 9am to 4pm, with doors closing to new visitors at 3pm. Guards would allow about six or seven visitors or visiting families in at one time. They would then talk to their detained friends and family for an hour, then six or seven more would be allowed. The trickle should have been more of a flow, since there are several visitation rooms, each with about six visitation booths, but guards again refused to answer pages, refused to find the detainees whose visitors were waiting, and refused to open any additional visitation rooms. They had no problem standing around though. In fact, standing around seemed to be at the top of their skill set.

As previously mentioned, SDC is secluded from civilization. There is no Holiday Inn, no Motel 6, no bed and breakfast. Visitors who would like to see their loved ones Saturday and Sunday find themselves struggling to accomplish this. The one saving grace is a small charity known as El Refugio. Run by Alterna, a Christian mission and pro-immigration group, El Refugio is a small, three bedroom house with nine available beds, most of them bunks, and a few couches. It is a few minutes by car from SDC.

El Refugio is open Friday afternoon to Sunday night and exists as a hospitality house for visiting families. While it is certainly not a luxury hotel, the house has all the necessary amenities, a kitchen with a refrigerator, a microwave, and a TV, countless books and games, restroom with a working toilet and shower, and most importantly, food and toiletries. It is completely free of charge and runs strictly on donations.

A volunteer simply by the name of Leslie who works intimately with El Refugio and visits SDC often laments, “There are always heartbreaking experiences. Every week you meet people who, from one day to the next, went from living a happy, family life to having their loved one arrested and detained, and they don't know what their future holds.”

Indeed, detainees are often held indefinitely, leaving their families in confusion, sometimes for years. Leslie went on to explain, “If you're from Mexico, then you're probably going to get deported pretty quick, but if you're from Vietnam or Poland or somewhere that not a lot of immigrants come from, you might get stuck [at SDC] for years.”

The excuse for detaining immigrants long term is often that, to save money, the group must be large enough to fill all or most of an airplane to the given country. Detainees from countries with lower immigrant populations may find themselves in the purgatory of SDC for quite some time.

According to a few folks in the waiting room, their family members had been detained for a lot longer than the expected 50 to 60 days. Their state was aggravated by SDC's substandard conditions. Although it is a privately owned facility, supposedly, SDC still has to meet certain federal standards, but apparently those standards are rarely monitored.

“[My brother] says he'd rather be in a regular prison than in this one. He says the food is worse than anywhere he's ever been, the guards are idiots, toilets back up, water gets shut off, they run out of stuff, the laundry doesn't get done. You might go a couple days with no clean underwear or socks,” mentioned a Canadian-American visitor.

Prisoners for Profit concurs with these sentiments and more. Detainees are often given used razors, an obvious biohazard. Rotten food is served and detainees with medical issues requiring special diets are not accommodated. Detainees are made to wait for basic toiletries, including tooth paste, soap, and toilet paper. The water may go off for several hours at a time, making it impossible to bathe, flush toilets, or wash hands.

On the bright side, “He's been in other prisons too and he said the gang and violence situation here is a lot better because most of the people here aren't really criminals. It's not like they're thieves or rapists or murders,” the Canadian-American explained.

The crime that most of the detainees committed before ending up in SDC? Minor traffic violations.

Make no mistake, Stewart Detention Center is a real prison, cell blocks, iron bars, abusive guards and incompetent administration. It is not some cushy hangout for people to stay in until they get deported. While many Americans believe places like SDC are necessary to protect the rights and jobs of American citizens, spending millions in tax payer money to give police more power to question, capture, detain, and deport non-violent people as if they were diseased animals is certainly not the way to go about it. None of this abuse helps you, as a citizen. In fact, it severely cripples your wallet.

All of this “good work” being done to preserve citizens' rights and employment has left the American tax payers with a hefty bill of $5.5 million per day. To add insult to injury, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a budget for $2.75 billion for the fiscal year of 2012, increasing the daily bill $7.5 million. So much for low taxes, small government, and more freedom.

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