Federal investigation documents ‘barbaric’ conditions in ICE facilities

Government inspectors found violations inside several Georgia immigrant jails, NPR investigation reveals
File photo: An employee at the Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the company that operates the facility confirmed Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

File photo: An employee at the Stewart Detention Center in South Georgia has tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the company that operates the facility confirmed Tuesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

During a visit to the biggest immigration jail in Georgia, a federal investigator found a clinic that was “among the dirtiest medical spaces I have ever seen in a U.S. detention facility.”

At another Georgia facility holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, a nurse ignored an asthma patient’s request to urgently see a doctor over concerns with his inhaler. The nurse recorded that the detainee “was seen in sick call,” even though that wasn’t true.

In Atlanta, an immigrant detainee died after failing to receive adequate medication to treat his diabetes and high blood pressure.

These were among the findings documented in inspection reports commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which were obtained by NPR and published earlier this week. Of the 26 facilities inspected in a three-year span during the Trump administration, three were located in Georgia. Nationwide, experts found a range of violations, including racial discrimination of detainees, retaliation, “barbaric” treatment of a mentally ill migrant, and instances of negligence that put lives at risk.

In Georgia, most findings center around detainees’ problems accessing healthcare services, in apparent violation of ICE policies that require facilities to provide “comprehensive medical and mental health care for noncitizens from the moment they arrive … and throughout their time in custody.”

The immigration detention system is civil rather than criminal. It relies heavily on private prison companies: As of July 2023, over 90% of the roughly 31,000 people detained in ICE custody were in private facilities, per an analysis of ICE data by the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to NPR, which obtained copies of the inspection reports after a years-long legal process, the experts tapped by the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to audit immigrant detention facilities have “specific expertise” in areas such as medicine, mental health and use of force. That put them in a position to find issues that other government inspectors may have overlooked.

“These reports are indicative of the moral failure of our nation’s immigration detention system and waste of taxpayer dollars to enrich private prison companies,” said Erin Argueta, senior lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. “The immigrant detention system is inhumane, furthers no sensible public policy, and must end.”

In a statement, a DHS spokesperson said that the agency “continuously reviews and enhances civil detention operations to ensure noncitizens are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled.”

Georgia findings

When federal inspectors representing the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties visited South Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center in early 2017, the total detainee population surpassed 1,800. In July 2023, that facility averaged roughly 1,200 detainees per day, a reflection of the Biden administration’s waning reliance on immigrant detention relative to its predecessors.

According to inspectors, Stewart’s medical staffing was “insufficient” given the large number of detainees. Because the size of the clinic was also limited, individuals requiring medical observation were treated in units reserved for solitary confinement, a violation of ICE standards that “confuses therapeutic space with punitive space and corrodes trust between detainees and clinicians.”

The clinic, which hadn’t been cleaned in weeks, was filthy. Inspectors found peeling paint and pills strewn on the floor, among other issues.

In a statement shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a spokesman for CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs Stewart, said that the inspection reports published by NPR are “outdated” and “not reflective of current facility operations.” He also noted that CoreCivic only started managing the medical clinic facilities at Stewart in 2018.

“The safety, health and well-being of the individuals entrusted to our care is our top priority,” he said.

Amilcar Valencia co-founded and leads El Refugio, a nonprofit that supports Stewart detainees.

“El Refugio and many local and national human rights defenders have sounded the alarm about the dangerous conditions and mistreatment immigrants face at this facility for years,” he wrote in a statement shared with the AJC.

“We know what is really going on inside Stewart Detention Center because we are in communication with people every day. We visit people. We receive their letters. We take their calls to our helpline. The experiences they share with El Refugio have remained consistent over the years: neglect, abuse, and inhumane treatment.”

At the Atlanta City Detention Center, detainees told inspectors that they feared reporting complaints would result in staff retaliation. Other detainees said they were threatened with lockdown if they didn’t sign up for the voluntary work program, which included cleaning and sanitation tasks.

ACDC, which stopped holding ICE detainees following a 2018 decision by then-mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, was also the place where a detainee died shortly after being booked into the facility. According to inspectors, the man reported upon his arrival that he needed medication to treat diabetes and high blood pressure. The nurses did not notify the physician and chose instead to rely on generic treatment options. The detainee collapsed shortly thereafter.

“Nurses should be provided with clear guidelines for when the physician should be contacted,” the inspection report states.

At a third Georgia facility, the still-open Folkston ICE Processing Center (FIPC), a nurse ignored an asthma patient’s request to see a doctor but indicated that he had been examined.

“The documentation by the nurse bordered on falsification and the failure to see a patient urgently requesting medical attention regarding treatment with an inhaler was negligent,” an inspector wrote.

Inspectors at Folkston also found negligence and at least one additional “grave mistake in clinical judgement” in the way detainees who needed medical care were treated.

The GEO Group, a private-prison company that operates FIPC, said in a stateman via a spokesperson that it “has a longstanding commitment to respecting the human rights of the individuals in our care and to ethical practices in all aspects of our services.”

According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, inspection of immigrant detention facilities have failed to yield better conditions.

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