Ghost town detainees: inside the US immigration detention system
After a detention centre was built in one of Georgia’s poorest towns, the promised financial benefits never arrived. Instead thousands of immigrants are locked up, awaiting deportation
By Antony Loewenstein FOR
Stewart immigration detention centre is situated on the outskirts of Lumpkin, Georgia, a ghost town seven days a week. Visitors and detainees arriving at the centre – capacity: 2,000, all male – are greeted by a huge painted sign on a water tank: “CCA: America’s Leader in Partnership Corrections.”
I toured the centre, with the exception of the isolation ward, when I visited Georgia in August. Five men followed me everywhere: one from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the centre operator, and the rest from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It felt like overkill. They looked nervous the entire time, worried about my questions, worried something unexpected could happen and worried that I’d see something that would embarrass them. Down a long hallway, lit brightly with neon lights and smelling of paint and detergent, lines of inmates walked past me – some smiling, some waving and some looking forlorn.
Despite the White House this year describing the surge of immigrants as an “urgent situation”, and privatised detention centres opening across America, Barack Obama continues to postpone his long-awaited immigration reforms, leaving many feeling betrayed. Since October last year, ICE has removed more than 100,000 people from the US. They are mostly Guatemalans, Hondurans and El Salvadorans who were in the US unlawfully – the three countries comprise roughly 29% of ICE removals federally. Just this year 70,000 children will arrive alone on America’s border, fleeing poverty and the US-led drug war in Central America.
The average inmate stay at Stewart is only 38 days, far less than most prisons. It’s virtually impossible for the detainees to establish any sense of permanence. It’s positive that long-term detention is largely avoided, unlike in detention centres in Britain, Greece and Australia, but inmates are often moved from one facility to another while others with deep roots in America are deported back to their country of origin without transparency. They are numbers to be processed.
Many inmates live in large, barred pods, with a maximum occupancy of 62. Others live in smaller rooms or the segregation unit. I spotted a few female CCA staff inside the pods with the male inmates. A sign next to one of the rooms read, “Upon Entering Detainee Pod All CCA Female Staff Will Announce Female in POD.”
Another pod had its lights dimmed because the inmates started working in the kitchen at 5am and were resting. CCA pays US$4 per day for inmates to perform kitchen duties, and less for other jobs (barbers receive $2, for example). ICE was proud to tell me that the law only mandates the state paying $1 per day, so CCA is doing a fine job.
Men in a different, brightly lit pod were laying on their bunk beds under blankets and sheets. A microwave, cable TV, sink, Playstation and Wii were inside. One man was wearing headphones to listen to the TV in front of him. Basins and toilets were behind a curtain. Metal tables and seats were fixed to the floor. “I’m not saying it’s like the Hilton here”, an ICE manager said. Signs in English and Spanish read, “Keep Detention Safe: ICE has zero tolerance for sexual abuse and assault”.
A notice listed a phone number for inmates to call if they needed assistance. Telephones are available for inmates to call lawyers, embassies and friends, but the cost is exorbitant because of price gouging from companies making a fortune selling phone cards to inmates. It’s ahugely profitable business, just one of many markets to be exploited inside America’s incarceration system.
The library was stocked with countless Bibles and romance novels. Detainees played soccer and basketball, both inside and outside under the bright, blue sky. They have two hours daily to enjoy the outdoors. In the medical centre I saw an inmate in an orange jumpsuit and orange Crocs shoes hooked up to a drip. The medical offer refused to tell me about his condition. I wondered if it’s sickness or something worse; a few months before my arrival detainees went on hunger strike after complaints about rotten food. As soon as I see him we’re moved on.
I then passed a guard staring into a darkened cell. He was looking through a small window at an inmate sitting, looking straight ahead, with eyes wide open. He wasn’t handcuffed, but sat perfectly still in a flame retardant suicide smock, like a straitjacket. What exactly could he use to light himself when locked in a cell on his own, with the guard watching him like a hawk? The medical officer said that suicide watch wasn’t always necessary, but with the high rate of removals from Stewart a detainee’s state of mind was often fragile.
Another door led to the centre’s own court, where claims by immigrants who wish to remain in the country were assessed. The courts are under the executive, not the judicial branch of government, and serious questions exist over their lack of accountability. Many decisions aren’t even written down, hearings are secretive and access to lawyers is difficult. Almost every immigrant brought before the court is issued a deportation order.
Unlike America’s prison population, where drug and alcohol use and abuse are common, ICE told me that these problems don’t exist at Stewart. Throughout the visit I never saw any abuse, violence or racism. It was the ideal tour. My hosts were friendly and attentive, and dismissed the numerous inmate claims. One detainee I spoke to told me of racist taunting and abuse by guards, and boredom. He had heard about maggots in the food from a fellow detainee but hadn’t seen it himself. His own story was troubling, a migrant from Guyana in the 1970s facing deportation to a nation he hadn’t seen in 40 years.
Although both CCA and ICE claim the facility isn’t run like a private prison, in reality it operates like one. But according to Silky Shah, co-director of Detention Watch Network, CCA and other operating companies have only so much power. “They don’t have complete control,” she says. “Decisions are being made by politicians.” She is campaigning against a Congress-mandated quota that dictates 34,000 immigrants must be imprisoned in ICE centres nightly; CCA is effective at lobbying to ensure ongoing contracts.
A report released recently by some of America’s leading advocacy organisations found that ICE arrests in Georgia increased by “at least 953%” between the 2007 and 2013 financial years. Georgia’s rate of imprisoning immigrants was directly related to the colour of their skin: over that same period of time, only 1.6% of those detained by ICE were of “fair or light complexion”.
Huge numbers of families have also been separated, including individuals who had been living in Georgia since at least 2003. On the day I arrived at Stewart, 1,766 detainees were behind bars, the vast majority from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala, with 60 other countries represented.
Shah’s organisation believes that “private interests should not be involved” in the detention business. But privatised incarceration is only one profitable area of commerce. She worries that companies selling ankle monitoring and surveillance will benefit if Obama even moderately reduces the number of people in detention.
“We believe in abolishing all detention centres in US”, Shah says. “At the moment, the burden is on the detainee to prove why they should stay but the burden should be on the government to justify expulsion. They should assess if the immigrant has community support.”
Out in Lumpkin, the streets were deserted. The shops on Main Street were mostly empty, paint fraying on the window panes. A taxidermy outlet was one of the few open businesses. The town, in one of America’s poorest counties, is all but unknown to most Americans. Its population barely breaks 1,000.
I met a man in his 20s, either high or drunk, who was hanging out at a petrol station with his friends. He had a tattoo on his bare chest: “Me Against The World.” He told me he’s been living in Miami. “It’s so much better there,” he said. He was only there for a short visit.
The town’s dwindling youth population are leaving for greener pastures in bigger cities nearby. CCA started building Stewart in 2004, and sold the idea to ICE and the local community years later as both an economic benefit for local residents and a deterrent in a state traditionally hostile to immigrants.
Although the company’s 2014 financial results were strong, the benefits never arrived in Lumpkin. Many staff members don’t live in the town, but commute from more viable cities. Lumpkin reminds me of crumbling towns next to other detention facilities I’ve seen in Australia, Britain and Greece. The same failed promises from the same centre companies and state authorities were made in those nations too. The economic promise of a local detention centre is usually a lie.
Even in the detention centre itself CCA’s own employees struggle financially. I met one guard who was selling potato crisps, bottled water and chocolates to raise money from staff to support struggling CCA employees around the country. Although it’s admirable that people want to help, it’s revealing that the company doesn’t raise wages, but instead facilitates the sale of junk food.
In tough circumstances this kind of charity is often all people have. In Lumpkin, a small, Christian-run volunteer group, El Refugio, supports the visitors and families of detainees coming to the town. They operate a house over weekends very close to Stewart detention centre and offer free meals, accommodation, clothes and shoes – and comfort.
When I pay a visit one Saturday, a few days before my official tour inside Stewart, people from Atlanta and Columbus are providing a compassionate ear to an inmate. The conversation goes on for around an hour, with some hearing horrific stories. One man, Greg, tells me that “many Americans think anyone who enters America ‘illegally’ should be deported but we want to show a different side of people.” One of the group’s founders, Katie Beno Valencia, says El Refugio remains committed to shutting down any facility that makes money from misery.
This kind of humanity is sorely missing from America’s immigration debate, defined by toxic rhetoric from many Republicans and timidity from Democrats. Adelina Nicholls, executive director of Georgia Latino Alliance For Human Rights, doesn’t believe America wants to solve its immigration issues. “US people often care more about hunger in Ethiopia then poor Guatemalans here”, she told me at her office on the outskirts of Atlanta.
As a key representative of the large Latino community in Georgia, Nicholls sees the effect immigration detention has on individuals and families. “Stewart detention centre hurts us deeply and many detainees inside have been in the US for years,” she says. “They ask, ‘Why are gringos doing this to us?’ These workers have been employed for years in farms and restaurants and anger is growing. We are trying to mobilise resistance and civil disobedience.”
Her organisation receives at least 600 calls a month on its hotline, mostly Latinos asking for help. “It’s hard getting effective pro-bono lawyers here”, she tells me. “There are overly high bails for our clients … it’s a racist mindset [in Georgia]. It’s white supremacy with its concerns over brown people. It’s more profitable to behave this way.”
I saw just how profitable the industry can be when I visited the American Correctional Association conference in Salt Lake City in August. The five-day event brings America’s prison industry, wardens, county officials and lobbyists under one roof. As America shifts slowly but noticeably away from mass incarceration towards privatised probation, half-way houses and surveillance, new markets emerge. CCA’s CEO, Damon Hininger, has noted that his company is “well-positioned for growth opportunities”.
At Salt Lake City everything is on show: surveillance devices, Swat team uniforms, weapons, plastic e-cigarettes for inmates, drug-testing kits and prisoner-made furniture. Green prison designers and service contractors offer their services to public officials eager to spend tax dollars.
These are people who look at America’s prison and immigration system and see dollar signs. One night at an outdoor rooftop party I spoke to a man who works at GTL, a provider of communication and technology to prisons. The company’s website describes itself as a “corrections innovation leader”. He said he loves his job because he embraces new technology and revels in the chance to promote it.
“This industry hasn’t changed for over 100 years because of men who didn’t see any need to do so”, he said. “But new technology is forcing these shifts and my generation is at the forefront of it.”