SPLC: ICE should expand access for attorneys at South Georgia detention center

A civil rights group is calling on a sprawling federal immigration detention center in South Georgia to make it easier for attorneys to meet with their clients there, arguing the current setup is “wholly inadequate.”

In a letter sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center said attorneys must sometimes wait hours to meet with detainees there because there are only three meeting rooms available. Because of the limited space and restrictions on when they can meet, their meetings are sometimes cut short, the SPLC said. Attorneys are also blocked from bringing in their laptops and electronic tablets and are separated from the detainees by windows, forcing them to communicate with telephones.

The SPLC -- which recently started a pro bono lawyer program at Stewart called the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative – has asked the privately run detention center to relax its restrictions and expand space for the attorneys and their clients to meet in person.

“We have attorneys ready and willing to provide assistance to immigrants, but these needless limitations prevent them from doing their job,” Daniel Werner, director of the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, said in a statement Wednesday.

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ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said attorneys could avoid long waits by scheduling meetings with their clients in advance. He added that videoconferencing is another available option at Stewart. Attorneys, he said, are prohibited from bringing electronic devices into the detention center because of security concerns.

“Stewart is subject to regular inspections, both announced and unannounced, and has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with federal law and agency policy,” Cox said. He added that Stewart was most recently inspected in May and found to be in compliance with ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards.

But attorneys are still facing long waits even after scheduling appointments in advance with their clients at Stewart, said Naomi Tsu, the SPLC’s deputy legal director. And videoconferencing, she said, is no substitute when attorneys need to share documents with or get signatures from detainees, many of whom have fled violence and deprivation in their native countries and may feel more comfortable sharing their stories in person.