Opinion: Ga. immigration detainees suffer inhumane treatment

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees exercising during a recreation period at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. CURTIS COMPTON/ccompton@ajc.com

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees exercising during a recreation period at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla. CURTIS COMPTON/ccompton@ajc.com

On Feb. 2, Eduardo Samaniego, an immigrants’ rights activist and community leader was forced by the U.S. government to leave his home and community behind and leave to Mexico after suffering egregious abuse in ICE detention, joining an untold number of other immigrants whom the government has wronged.

Eduardo Samaniego has been in the U.S. since he was 16. He was valedictorian at his high school but was not able to attend the University of Georgia because he is undocumented (Georgia has had a discriminatory ban in place since 2010 which excludes undocumented students and DACA grantees admission to selective public universities in Georgia). He instead went on to attend Hampshire College with a full ride scholarship where he served on the Board of Trustees.

Back to Georgia for a visit last year, Eduardo ended up in ICE custody because of a dispute over a cab fare.

Eduardo was on suicide watch at the privately-run Irwin County Detention Center for more than two weeks (the same facility that the rapper Savage 21 is currently being held at). This translated to solitary confinement under 24-hour observation. He had no mattress to sleep on and was forced to sleep on the floor. He was not receiving adequate mental health care at Irwin. Eduardo also suffers from kidney problems and was not receiving proper care.

Irwin is one of the worst facilities nationwide in its treatment of detained immigrants, as we showed in a 2017 report focused on the Irwin County Detention Center as well another notorious facility in Georgia, the Stewart Detention Center.

At Irwin, all detained immigrants we interviewed unanimously reported finding objects in the food, being forced to eat rancid food, and needing to supplement their diet by purchasing additional food at the commissary. Many detained immigrants at Irwin also reported that they found rocks and nails in their food, and further told us that they experienced significant weight loss since their detention at Irwin.

Verbal abuse and racial slurs were commonly used against immigrants, with many guards shouting at them to “go back to your own country,” and threatening them that “you’ll never get out.”

Irwin also fails to distinguish between administrative and punitive segregation, and is known to segregate detained immigrants for up to six months for an attempt to initiate a protest. Such extended detentions are in clear violation of ICE’s own standards, as well as the conclusion of a UN expert that non-punitive segregation should never exceed 15 days.

Irwin is said to employ only two or three on-duty medical staff. Request forms for healthcare are only available in English and Spanish, preventing many detained immigrants from accessing medical care. As a result, outbreaks of illnesses like rashes, flus, and stomach illnesses remain rampant throughout the facility.

Unsurprisingly, such illnesses also exacerbate the mental health issues and traumas that many detained immigrants had already experienced as asylum-seekers and imprisoned persons.

Those suffering serious mental afflictions at Irwin are placed in solitary confinement. As a result, detained immigrants who suffer from mental health issues are often too fearful to express their need for care.

Recent tragedies at another Georgia detention center, Stewart, also raise concern about treatment of people with mental health issues at these facilities. Jean Carlos Jiménez-Joseph, a 27-year-old immigrant detained at Stewart, died of suicide on May 15, 2017 by hanging himself while in solitary confinement. He had been in solitary for 19 days. Jiménez was a clear suicide risk: he had told nurses that voices were telling him to kill himself, he had been seen banging on the mirror in his cell, and had jumped off a second floor walkway in the detention center weeks before. He should have been receiving treatment, not been isolated and forgotten in solitary.

Another man, Efrain De La Rosa, 40, diagnosed with schizophrenia, spent 21 days in solitary confinement also at Stewart before hanging himself on July 10, 2018.

These tragedies are a clear indication that human rights norms and ICE’s own standards are routinely being ignored at Irwin and Stewart.

Eduardo’s health greatly suffered in ICE custody. His mental health deteriorated to such an extent at Irwin that he was transferred to the Columbia Regional Care Center, an ICE-contracted private for-profit mental health detention facility.

Speaking of his time in detention, Eduardo said: “I sincerely never imagined the extent of the inhumanities committed against immigrants in our prison-industrial complex. This prison-industrial complex has robbed me of my physical health, it has violently damaged my fighting spirit, and it continues to open my mind to see too many inhumanities.”

The agency that subjects people to such mistreatment, ICE, should be abolished. Notorious immigration detention facilities which deny detained immigrants their basic human rights, such as Irwin, should be shut down.

Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal and Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild.