Locked-Up Immigrants Face Danger and Despair

In late March, as COVID-19 began to spread across the state, Ventura Quintanar-Rico made a call from the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison in Lumpkin, Georgia.

“We are waiting to get infected,” he told his friend, Ana Maria Reichenbach, a member of the immigrant rights group Siembra NC. She met Quintanar, who is thirty-two and from Mexico, when he was a construction worker in North Carolina.

Before her phone connection was blocked—she suspects by officials at the Stewart facility—Reichenbach talked to seven other detainees. They explained why they were staging a hunger strike to draw attention to their concerns.

“We don’t know when we will be infected by people coming from outside,” said one detainee. “At any moment, we could become infected. Going outside. Going out to the yard. Going to eat.”

Nationwide, as of early April, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is holding more than 32,000 people in detention in more than 200 facilities including Stewart, which can hold about 1,900 detainees. Many of the larger facilities are run by government contractors. Stewart is operated by the Nashville-based CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America.

While some states and localities have begun to release inmates from jails and prisons, ICE has lagged behind. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has said that decisions about the release of detainees must be made on a “case-by-case” basis. 

As of March 30, ICE had released only about 160 of the 600 detainees it had identified as eligible.

But there is nothing to preclude a much larger immediate release, especially since the immigration detention system is based on civil––not criminal––law.

“ICE has the authority to release anyone, at any time, under any conditions,” says Mich Gonzalez, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The health concerns regarding detainees at Stewart and other detention facilities are well founded.

“The track record of the facility is a deadly one,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South, an Atlanta-based group that is representing Stewart detainees and alleging that they were subjected to forced labor by CoreCivic.

Over the past two years, she notes, four Stewart detainees have died––two from suicide and two from illnesses.

It’s difficult to assess how widespread the coronavirus could be for detainees, because ICE lists only the number of confirmed cases on its COVID-19 website. It doesn’t say how many guards have been infected from the private companies that operate most of the larger centers.

As of April 15, the website listed seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Stewart facility. 

But this is not the whole story. In an affidavit filed in another lawsuit, the ICE officer in charge of Stewart, John Bretz, states that in addition to the confirmed COVID-19 cases, thirty detainees at Stewart were suspected of being infected as of April 9. The affidavit was part of the Trump Administration’s response to a Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit seeking the release of vulnerable detainees at Georgia facilities.

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James Goodman