Released 12 June 2017  By Sarah Lazare – In These Times
Under the Shadow of Trump, Dismantling Obama’s Deportation Machine
Communities are fighting back against an immigrant prison in rural Georgia.
Sarah Lazare – In These Times
May 31, 2017
Like immigrant prisons across the country, the Stewart Detention Center in southwestern Georgia is plagued with accusations of human rights abuses, including charges that its authorities routinely deny healthcare, provide substandard food and water and subject people to prolonged segregation. After a 27-year-old Panamanian national committed suicide at the facility on May 15, following a 19-day stint in solitary confinement, a coalition of social justice organizations is demanding that the detention center be shuttered on the grounds that it constitutes a deadly human rights violation zone that cannot be salvaged.
Stewart is not the only Georgia facility that has raised the alarm of the coalition, which includes Project South, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Georgia Detention Watch. Earlier this month, the groups protested outside the downtown Atlanta offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to demand the closure of centers, including the Atlanta City Detention Center, which was the custodian of Atulkumar Babubhai Patel, a 58-year-old Indian national, when he died this month, reportedly of complications from congestive heart failure.
“We need to shut down these detention centers and end solitary confinement, which does irreversible damage to mental health,” Lovette Thompson, an organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, told In These Times. “It is very important that we end these detention centers altogether. Prisons are the problem with our society and definitely not the solution.”
Thompson is one of countless organizers across the South shining a light on immigrant detention centers, which are often hidden away in rural and remote areas. Many of those on the front lines of these efforts conceive of their work as part of a larger movement to challenge harsh, anti-immigrant policies, as well as the prison-industrial complex in a country that is by far the world’s largest jailer. They are organizing to defend black and brown migrants and refugees, disproportionately targeted by President Donald Trump’s crackdown, and funneled into the deadly deportation apparatus fortified and expanded by former president Barack Obama.
Resisting the deportation-industrial complex
Like others in this movement, the Georgia coalition finds itself in the crosshairs of a Trump administration hell-bent on implementing the racist, anti-immigrant incitement that shaped its campaign. During the first three months of the Trump administration, immigration arrests spiked 38 percent compared to the same period last year. Despite the increase in arrests, deportations fell 12 percent during this period, according to Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE. This means that, of the 41,318 people who were arrested by ICE between January 22 and April 29, many find themselves trapped in prison-like facilities, which have been rocked by hunger strikes and protests over abusive and indefinite detention.
But the coalition also faces the challenge of dismantling the deportation machine that was built by Obama before it was handed over to the Trump administration. Between 2009 and 2015, Obama deported more than 2.5 million people, an increase of 23 percent from his predecessor George W. Bush. This number does not take into account those individuals who died seeking entry to the United States, were turned away at the border or self-deported.
Obama’s historic deportations were coupled with high levels of incarceration. The Department of Homeland Security reports that, in fiscal year 2016, ICE locked up close to 353,000 people. In 2014, Obama made “family detention centers” a centerpiece of his response to large-scale, violent displacement from Central America, incarcerating mothers with their children in prison-like facilities.
“It is a real disgrace that Obama didn’t dismantle family detention before he left office,” Cristina Parker, an organizer with the Texas-based group Grassroots Leadership, told In These Times. “He put it into the hands of an extreme administration. Obama really perfected the system with respect to mass deportations.”
History of abuse at Stewart
With a capacity of 1,752 people, Stewart is operated by the private company CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America, under contract with ICE. This private ownership is emblematic of a nationwide trend: In 2015, 62 percent of ICE detention beds were operated by for-profit companies, as compared to 49 percent in 2009.
This month, Project South and Penn State Law released a report on Stewart and the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. It found that the living conditions at both do not “comply with the international standards of detention.” Due to the remote location of the facilities, those detained are torn away from their families and legal counsel, the report states. In addition, “the food and water provided in these detention centers are not hygienic. Either the food that is provided is stale or spoiled, or several foreign particles are found in it.”
According to the report, one unnamed man from Somalia, detained at Stewart, said that he was placed in segregation in retaliation for participating in a hunger strike. “There were about twenty other Somali detainees in segregation for the hunger strike,” he told researchers, without providing a precise date. “In segregation, I could not see outside and did not know if it was day or night. I could see the other detainees through a small window.”
Such practices are confirmed by recent reporting. Citing documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Verge reported in February, “Beginning last April, and picking up in the weeks following the November election, dozens of detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in rural Georgia [Stewart] went on hunger strike in protest of their detention.” According to journalist Spencer Woodman, “staff began immediately locking them in solitary confinement for their participation in the non-violent protest.”
(Continue Part 2....)