Exclusive: A look inside Georgia’s newest immigration detention center

There were 661 detainees being held in the Folkston ICE Processing Center one day in February. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

There were 661 detainees being held in the Folkston ICE Processing Center one day in February. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Behind tall fences topped with coils of barbed wire in this rural corner of South Georgia, hundreds of immigrants from around the world are facing deportation. Eventually, they will file into a small room here and appear before an immigration judge via a video link so they can get an answer to the all-important question: Can I stay or must I go?

The privately operated detention center where they are being held is confronting a similar question about its fate. In November, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved to close the Folkston ICE Processing Center, citing “low usage.” Days later, the agency said it was re-evaluating that decision after Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents the area, pushed hard to keep the facility open.

RELATED: ICE moves to close South Georgia detention center, then re-evaluates

Since then, the Trump administration has negotiated to shrink the costly no-bid contract for the center’s operation, according to documents obtained through Georgia’s Open Records Act. Last month, GEO Group, the Florida-based corrections company that operates the center, proposed dropping the number of detention center beds guaranteed in the $116.7 million contract by 105, a move that would bring the total down to 675 and save taxpayers $1.6 million annually, the records show.

GEO referred questions about the contract negotiations to ICE, which declined to comment. But during an exclusive tour of the facility that ICE recently granted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there were no indications it was shutting down or shrinking. On the day of the AJC’s visit, the 780-bed center was holding 661 detainees. Many grim-faced immigrants in blue uniforms could be seen waiting for their appointments in the health clinic, reading in the library and standing in line for lunch.

Carter is defending the facility at a time when Georgia lawmakers are scrambling to eradicate rural poverty across the state. The congressman has joined Charlton County, where just over one-quarter of the 12,497 residents live in poverty, in rallying to protect the 233 jobs, $10 million in annual payroll and $265,000 in annual county property tax revenue and fees tied to the center. GEO, which also operates the federal D. Ray James Correctional Institution next door, is Charlton’s largest employer.

MORE: Stewart County, among nation’s poorest, illustrates rural Georgia’s woes

“There are a lot of people here who work there and rely on” the detention center, said Patti Gantt, the owner of Gantt Hardware and Hunting, a Folkston store that sells guns, ammunition and television sets to GEO workers. “If it closes, people would have to go an hour’s drive to find a job.”

Critics want ICE to shut down the Folkston facility and sever ties with private companies such as GEO.

“This immigrant prison doesn’t benefit anyone but the company and county officials profiting off of the suffering of immigrants inside,” said Christina Fialho, the executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, which wants to end immigration detention in the U.S. “This facility is a waste of taxpayer dollars and needs to be immediately closed.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is pushing to add hundreds of additional detention center beds as it ratchets up immigration enforcement across the nation. Last month, ICE won a victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that people held in immigration detention centers do not have a right to periodic hearings to determine whether they should be released on bond. Some are now held for months or even years behind bars.

In the court’s decision, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote that detaining immigrants during their deportation proceedings gives the government “time to determine an alien’s status without running the risk of the alien either absconding or engaging in criminal activity before a final decision can be made.”

‘In the middle of nowhere’

A long stretch of dark fabric hangs on the fence separating the immigration detention center and the federal prison next door. ICE asked for the nearly opaque covering to “create a visual barrier/separation” between the two GEO-run facilities, both of which were once part of the same federal prison complex.

In December 2016, Charlton and ICE signed a contract to open the immigration detention center next to the prison, a five-year agreement that costs taxpayers $1.9 million a month regardless of whether all the beds in the center are filled. To accommodate the immigrant detainees, officials renovated the former prison building, expanded the parking lot and added a soccer field and running track.

In-Depth: Immigration detention center in South Georgia to cost $116.7 million

Only men are held there. Most are arrested along the U.S.-Mexican border and at ports of entry in California and Texas. Many come from Mexico and Central America, while others have traveled from Cameroon, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Nepal and Pakistan.

They share common rooms and sleep on blue bunk beds, use communal bathrooms and gather around octagon-shaped tables topped with chessboards. Citing privacy reasons, ICE did not permit the AJC to interview them without obtaining written permission from the agency and the detainees in advance.

But immigrant rights advocates who have visited them inside the detention center wonder about their medical care and to what extent ICE is putting them in solitary confinement. They cited the deaths of three detainees who had been held in other immigration detention centers in Georgia since May.

In January, a 33-year-old Cuban national died from pneumonia while in ICE custody after being held at a separate immigration detention center operated by a different corrections company in Stewart County. And in May, a 58-year-old Indian man who was being detained by ICE at the Atlanta City Detention Center died at Grady Memorial Hospital because of complications from congestive heart failure.

A doctor works at the immigration detention center in Folkston 10 hours a day, three days a week, and a nurse practitioner is there the other four days, according to GEO. The doctor is on call after hours for emergencies.

On May 15, a 27-year-old Panamanian national with a history of mental illness hanged himself with a sheet after being held in solitary confinement for 20 days at the Stewart Detention Center, which is operated by Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic. GEO said it has used its “restrictive housing unit” in Folkston only once since December and that was for four days for a detainee who had committed “misconduct infractions.” GEO added that a licensed clinical social worker and a psychologist work at the Folkston center on weekdays. Further, “suicide observation rooms” are available in the facility’s medical department, according to GEO.

Advocates have also raised concerns about the center’s remote location. It sits in a rural area near the alligator-filled Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, about five hours southeast of Atlanta. ICE said it chose the Folkston site partly because it is less than an hour from the Jacksonville International Airport in Florida and because other detention centers in the region were already full.

Still, its remote location makes it difficult for families and attorneys to visit, said the Rev. Leeann Culbreath, a deacon with the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. She visited the center in March of last year and spent time with about 40 of the detainees in the dining hall. Most were from India and many had been transferred from detention centers in Arizona, California, Florida and Virginia. Roughly three-quarters didn’t have attorneys.

That doesn’t bode well for their legal cases. One out of every 10 immigrants wins his or her asylum case in immigration courts, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization that monitors the federal government. Nearly half are successful when they have attorneys.

“They feel forgotten. They are out in the middle of nowhere,” said Culbreath, a co-founder of the Tifton-based South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.

Recognizing those challenges, the Southern Poverty Law Center recently began offering free legal support for detainees at the Folkston facility, said Elizabeth Matherne, a lead attorney for the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.

“If you put the detainee on the farthest corner of the United States,” she said, “obviously it is going to be difficult for anyone to visit them, let alone help hire an attorney for them with any sort of due diligence.”

Economic hits and then a boost

Dawn Malin recently pulled her khaki Subaru Crosstrek into the former site of the West Fraser lumber mill, a huge industrial space north of Folkston with vast empty sheds, loading ramps that lead to nowhere and weedy driveways that give it the feel of a post-apocalyptic movie set. The mill — which at one time employed about 135 people — closed roughly 10 years ago, said Malin, Charlton’s economic development director.

Giving the AJC a driving tour of the county, Malin traveled a mile south to Charlton Memorial Hospital, a darkened building with an empty helipad. Weighed down by millions of dollars in debt, the brick hospital with tan trim closed in 2013.

“We have had several hits already to our economy, so it was a great boost when ICE came in” with the immigration detention center, said Malin, who also leads the local chamber of commerce.

By some estimates, Folkston’s immigration detention center is expected to create an estimated economic impact of $42 million for the region and $21 million in revenue for GEO. It is also home to more than 10 percent of Charlton’s 2,000 jobs, Malin said, so shutting it down would be like a punch in the gut for the county.

Malin ended her tour at Thai Smile, a popular downtown Folkston restaurant that serves pad Thai, sushi and hibachi food. The owner, Somsak Sangsawangwatana, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Thailand, sympathizes with the immigrants who wind up in the detention center. But he also worries what would happen to Folkston’s economy if it were to close. GEO employees, he said, eat at his restaurant.

“Where are they going to go work if they close it up? It’s not going to be good for people to lose their jobs and they have to move,” he said. “How are they going to spend money?”

Charlton County snapshot

2016 population: 12,497

2010 population: 12,171

Population under 18: 19.1 percent

Population 65 and over: 14.4 percent

White residents: 65.6 percent

Black residents: 31.2 percent

Median home value: $80,400

Median household income: $43,871

People living in poverty: 27.2 percent

Unemployment rate as of December 2017: 5.1 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Never miss a minute of what's happening in Georgia Politics. Subscribe to PoliticallyGeorgia.com.