Exclusive: Ga. immigration facility to become one of nation’s largest

Folkston-area complex now counts 3,018 beds near a city with about 4,400 residents
Detainees at the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Charlton County in 2018. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

Detainees at the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Charlton County in 2018. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

A corrections company has reached an agreement with local officials that would greatly expand its immigration detention complex in South Georgia, creating one of the largest of its kind in the nation, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The document The GEO Group and Charlton County signed late last year nearly quadruples the number of beds for federal immigration detainees near the Florida-Georgia border, from 780 to 3,018. It does that by adding beds in two nearby buildings in the Folkston area, one of which served as a federal prison until last year.

If all of those beds were filled, the number of ICE detainees held there would total more than half of Folkston’s population of about 4,400. The next largest facility in Georgia, Stewart Detention Center near Lumpkin, has capacity for about 1,900 detainees.

The changes in Folkston are simultaneously drawing fire from immigrant rights activists who want such detention centers shut down and praise from local officials who see the possibility of more jobs and tax revenue.

Meanwhile, it’s unknown whether ICE will begin sending more detainees to the Folkston area, where the existing Folkston ICE Processing Center was holding 544 of the agency’s detainees on average each day last month, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University.

GEO, a publicly traded company headquartered in Florida, referred questions to ICE. The federal agency declined to comment on precisely what it will do, though it said it is “exploring options that will afford ICE the operational flexibility needed to house the full range of detainees in the agency’s custody.”

Meanwhile, ICE’s number of detainees has fallen in recent years. As of Jan. 16, the agency was holding 20,886 people across the nation, TRAC’s data shows. That is down from 55,564 in August of 2019, when Donald Trump was president. Detainees are held until their Immigration Court cases are adjudicated and they are released or deported.

ICE gave the AJC an exclusive tour of the Folkston ICE Processing Center in 2018, revealing that most of the detainees there were arrested along the U.S.-Mexican border and at ports of entry in California and Texas. Only men were held there. Many came from Mexico and Central America, while others traveled from Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Nepal and Pakistan. They shared common rooms in the center and slept on blue bunk beds, used communal bathrooms and gathered around octagon-shaped tables topped with chess boards.

GEO and Charlton signed their expansion agreement after the U.S. Bureau of Prisons decided not to renew its contract with GEO last year for holding federal prisoners at the D. Ray James Correctional Facility in the Folkston area. That decision prompted GEO to announce in July of 2020 that it was laying off 316 employees at the prison.

The region’s economy and finances suffered mightily when the prison closed last year, said Folkston City Manager Pender Lloyd. For example, Folkston lost more than $300,000 in water and sewer revenue after the prison shut down, said Lloyd, who is anxiously awaiting a decision from ICE about whether it will send more detainees to Folkston.

“We certainly hope they do,” Lloyd said.

Folkston is Charlton’s county seat. On Nov. 4, Charlton officials voted to extend for five years a contract with ICE for holding its detainees in the Folkston ICE Processing Center. The fixed-price contract costs ICE $1.9 million a month. Payments from ICE for holding the detainees pass through Charlton to GEO.

Last month, Charlton Commission Chairman James Everett signed an amendment to a related contract with GEO for operating the the Folkston ICE Processing Center. That amendment adds the additional beds and increases the administrative fees GEO pays Charlton monthly, from $2,500 to as much as much as $21,500, depending on how many beds are filled by ICE detainees, according to records The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act. Everett could not be reached for comment.

A look inside the Folkston ICE Processing Center in 2018. The GEO Group and Charlton County have signed an agreement that would greatly expand its immigration detention complex in South Georgia, creating one of the largest of its kind in the nation. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

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GEO and Charlton signed the contract amendment after ICE moved about 40 remaining detainees out of the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. ICE’s decision in Ocilla followed a whistleblower complaint and a federal lawsuit alleging a high number of hysterectomies and other invasive gynecological procedures had been performed on Irwin detainees without their informed consent. Also last year, the Biden administration announced it would stop holding ICE detainees at the C. Carlos Carreiro Immigration Detention Center in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, citing mistreatment of detainees.

As rumors about the Folkston-area expansion spread this month, dozens of activists rallied near the steps of the Georgia Capitol. They brought a banner that read: “Shut Down Folkston ICE Facility.” For Lovette Kargbo Thompson, an Atlanta organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, the expansion amounts to “another broken promise by the Biden administration.” In a visit to Georgia last year, President Joe Biden said, “There should be no private prisons, period, none, period.”

“Much has been done to shut down Irwin, but then to expand on another detention center, it’s like a slap in the face,” Kargbo Thompson said.

Nilson Barahona-Marriaga was held for 13 months in two other Georgia immigration detention centers.

“We still have open wounds,” he said in a statement. Expanding capacity for ICE detainees in the Folkston area, he added, “is a shame the community will not allow.”