Inspectors find drugs, dangers in Ga. ‘ticking bomb’ detention center

Detainees playing soccer at Stewart Detention Center, a holding facility for immigrants being processed for deportation. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff photo).

Detainees playing soccer at Stewart Detention Center, a holding facility for immigrants being processed for deportation. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff photo).

A sprawling immigration detention center in South Georgia has grappled with drug smuggling, chronic medical staff shortages and persistent safety problems that one employee called a “ticking bomb,” according to internal records from a federal investigation published in December.

Consisting of dozens of pages of interviews, emails and photos, the records from the probe paint a troubling picture of Stewart Detention Center, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility operated by Nashville-based CoreCivic.

The inspectors, prompted by concerns raised by immigrant rights groups and complaints received on a federal hotline, interviewed unnamed employees and detainees at Stewart during visits there in 2016 and 2017. They also visited detention centers in California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas.

The U.S. Homeland Security Department Office of Inspector General released its findings in a 19-page report in December. But the office's 88 pages of internal working papers — first obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and WABE — shed more light on Stewart's thorny challenges.

During one of their visits to the facility in Lumpkin, the investigators discovered staffers were using a handheld metal detector to search incoming detainees, instead of screening them by hand. Such devices would not detect non-metallic items, drugs and other contraband that could create security risks at Stewart, which held more than 1,900 people last year, according to the records.

“Drugs are continuously coming into the facility,” the investigators wrote after interviewing a CoreCivic facility investigator. Federal authorities had recently arrested Stewart employees accused of smuggling drugs inside, the records show.

In the past four years, two employees — neither were ICE workers, according to the federal agency — were fired for bringing drugs into the facility, said a CoreCivic spokeswoman. The last such incident occurred in February of 2016.

Meanwhile, paperwork problems at Stewart have made it difficult to separate detainees with no criminal records from those who have serious convictions. Officials use “transfer files,” which can include detainees’ criminal records, to classify and segregate them. But the transfer files were arriving a day or two after the detainees showed up at Stewart, making the process prone to errors.

“We have ‘non-criminals’ housed with felons. We have felons housed with ‘non-criminals,’ ” a CoreCivic classification supervisor said in a February 2017 email the federal inspectors obtained. “This is against policy, a finding with auditors, and a very serious accident waiting to happen.” That same CoreCivic worker called the paperwork delays a “ticking bomb.”

The inspectors’ records also say that one “easy to remove” Mexican national stayed at Stewart for 87 days because the paperwork needed for his deportation was lost in a CoreCivic mail room.

Several employees at Stewart said there were many open positions there, citing pay and recruiting issues and the facility’s remote location in rural Georgia. One called Stewart a “revolving door,” adding: “We get an ICE officer here for two months and then they are gone.”

Detainees reported long waits for medical care. A federal health official stationed at Stewart told investigators it had openings for seven registered nurses, three licensed practical nurses, a licensed clinical social worker, a psychiatrist and a medical doctor. Stewart has since boosted its medical staff and now has 25 registered nurses, 13 licensed practical nurses, two licensed clinical social workers, two medical doctors and a psychiatry nurse practitioner, according to ICE.

These revelations come as ICE is investigating the deaths of two Stewart detainees. Jean Jimenez-Joseph, 27, of Panama, died in May of last year after he hanged himself with a bed sheet. Officials failed to check on him as often as required before he killed himself in his solitary confinement cell. And in February, Yulio Castro Garrido, 33 of Cuba, died after he was diagnosed with pneumonia and taken to a series of hospitals.

CoreCivic released a statement to the AJC saying the problems identified in the federal investigation at Stewart were “quickly and effectively remedied.”

“CoreCivic cares deeply about every person in our care,” spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist said. “Our immigration facilities are monitored very closely by the government, and each and every one is required to undergo regular review and audit processes that include ensuring an appropriate standard of living for all detainees.”

Stewart, CoreCivic added, recently received a recommendation for accreditation from the American Correctional Association with an audit score of 100 percent. ICE said a contractor inspected Stewart in May of last year and last month and found it was fully complying with with the agency’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards.

“ICE ensures detention facilities comply with ICE detention standards through an aggressive inspections program, the majority of which are conducted by an independent third-party contractor,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.

CoreCivic operates the detention center through agreements with ICE and Stewart County. The county issued a statement saying it “had no knowledge of the alleged incidents” the investigators found because the detention center “does not report any detainee activities to the county.”

Eli Echols, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney who has represented immigrants held at Stewart, said that while the inspectors’ findings are “painful to read and should make any American taxpayer embarrassed at the way we treat those in our care, these facts are not new to anyone who has ever represented a non-citizen detained at the Stewart Detention Center.” Advocacy organizations have been raising concerns about the same problems at Stewart since it opened, Echols said.

“Because it seems clear that neither DHS/ICE nor CoreCivic can fix these problems,” said Echols, chairman of the Georgia-Alabama chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, “the facility should be closed.”