Hand soap is a luxury. Handmade masks are confiscated. Attempted social distancing is punished by cramped isolation. For those held in Stewart Detention Center in the midst of a global pandemic, these statements are a terrifying reality.
With the rise of COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, those who are incarcerated, including individuals detained without documentation, are at extremely high risk of contracting the virus. Stewart Detention Center, despite its location in Lumpkin, Ga., houses a substantial population of North Carolinians with suspected immigration violations. At a capacity of 1,924 people, as reported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Stewart is one of the largest detention centers in the country.
A harsh place even before the pandemic
Stewart is staffed by CoreCivic, a for-profit private prison entity which contracts with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide space for immigrant detention. In a recent media release, CoreCivic assured the public that “we have a Coronavirus Medical Action Plan in place at each of our facilities, which we’ve been working on since January.” This plan includes the participation of medical staff “to identify those who are deemed high-risk of being infected with or contracting COVID-19;” isolating those who are “high-risk” when necessary; and “working with local and state health departments to conduct appropriate testing.”
The substance of these statements, however, is refuted by advocates and immigration attorneys in North Carolina. Even before the pandemic hit the southeastern region, civil rights violations and inadequate healthcare were major concerns at Stewart. Marian Abernathy, chairwoman of the Social Action Committee of Judea Reform Synagogue in Durham, recalls her visit to the detention center in June 2019. “CoreCivic does not provide detainees with soap; they have to pay with their slave labor from a commissary.”
Stefania Arteaga, a Statewide Immigrants’ Rights Organizer with the ACLU of North Carolina, echoes a similar sentiment. “In detention centers, CDC guidelines can’t be followed. Stewart is notorious for having poor health standards.” Arteaga elaborates on a recent report that exposed suicides within the facility due to unaddressed mental health problems. “There’s people who’ve had situations where they needed medical treatment and have not been provided. To top it off, one of the worst immigration courts in the country for detained individuals sits there.” An individual who is detained has a 2% chance of winning a case in an immigration court in Stewart.
Immigration attorney Becca O’Neill, who has represented clients within Stewart, mentions numerous other safety concerns inside of the facility.
Immigrants held in Stewart get “little outside time. It creates a very unsafe environment for people, who are gender nonconforming or are transgender; they’re detained at a facility that does not conform with their gender.” Often, detainees do not speak English, so asking for basic necessities is uncomfortable at best. One client broke his arm and was forced to resume his daily routine for over two weeks without medical care because surgery would have required him to be transported to an external clinic. “He was told he would have to pay out of pocket himself despite the fact that the injury occurred in the face of their prison.”
An Atlanta Journal Constitution article expanded on this point, stating that four Stewart detainees have died from other causes since 2017. “There’s just been a lot of death,” Attorney O’Neill says, sighing.
Immigration detainees face an uphill battle
Becca O’Neill and Stefania Arteaga run a nonprofit called Carolina Migrant Network, which helps folks in detention centers gain access to pro bono legal representation to offset the cost of fighting their cases. Before legal representation, however, detainees must procure an immigration bond. These bonds are risky; their price ranges between $15,000 to $30,000 and bail bondsmen are not available to reduce the cost. After securing a bond, these immigrants then will have to fight their case, which typically costs around $5,000 for a lawyer.
Despite the parallels of these cases to the criminal justice system, many individuals detained in immigration custody are there for nothing more than a “wrong-place-wrong-time” violation. Abernathy states that ICE might choose to detain people for a variety of reasons. It might be for “driving through Alamance County with a broken taillight, or for not having the proper papers.”
According to O’Neill, most folks who are detained within Stewart are not bound to these facilities by federal law. Those who are legally required to reside in detention include immigrants who have old removal orders and have reentered the United States without inspection, but these detainees make up a small proportion of Stewart’s population. DHS and ICE are at the full discretion to release thousands of people. “[This] is a crisis that the government is creating. They don’t have to detain all the people that are there; in fact, they could release such a significant number that it is safer for the people who do have to be detained there by law.”
Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration attorney for the firm Polanco Law who represents clients from Stewart Detention Center, argues that the U.S. is violating international and human rights law. “A legal definition of a refugee…. also includes people who were being persecuted by groups that the government is unable or unwilling to control. That category has essentially been eliminated [by the U.S.],” Rosenbluth says.
And even during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. government is refusing to discharge large numbers of detainees from its facilities. According to an April 7 American Civil Liberties Union statement, ICE had identified 600 people who fit the description of medically vulnerable, but had claimed to have released only about 160 of them. The ACLU also sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in early April demanding the release of everyone in ICE detention until the spread of coronavirus came to a halt.
On April 10, three days after the ACLU statement was issued, ICE announced that 600 medically vulnerable people would be released. That, however, is a minute percentage of the detained immigrant population. The Guardian reported in September 2019 that there are about 52,000 people in immigration detention centers across the country.
Troubling reports from inside
Although most detainees will remain in Stewart indefinitely, Arteaga spoke to two clients who had been released in the past week. “These two people have stated that there is no hand soap, people aren’t being notified, and guards do have protective gear but people who are detained do not. There’s a lot of concern from people within that they are sitting ducks.”
“The reality is that people who are in confinement and detained in such close proximity are just extremely vulnerable to this disease,” Arteaga said.
One of O’Neill’s former clients, who is still detained at Stewart, was engaged in a few-days-long hunger strike about conditions related to coronavirus. He told O’Neill that he was concerned about his forced containment in a group (or “pod”) of about 60 people. Within the pods, individuals cannot physically socially distance; their beds are closer than six feet apart; they are living in close proximity to one another; toilet paper and other hygienic supplies are in short supply because of the pandemic.
O’Neill has at least one client who has agreed to a stipulated order of removal, or a self-deportation. “He was contemplating just giving up because if he didn’t, he probably wouldn’t be able to get a bond. So he’s giving up a chance to stay in the United States because of how bad it is in that facility.” Rosenbluth generalizes this experience, saying that sometimes living conditions become so dangerous that people originally seeking asylum will choose to self-deport. “They’re just, like, ‘I can’t be here anymore.’”
Joseph Neff, a reporter for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom that covers criminal justice says that most guards are not trained in infection control. Neff states that prisons and jails are similar to immigration detention, especially in managing the coronavirus. At the federal prison in Oakdale, La., “the correctional officers who get exposure, close-up, direct exposure to COVID-19 cases have been ordered to report back to work. The assumption is now that everyone, all of the inmates, and all of the staff had been exposed.” A fear from experts Neff has spoken to is that correctional officers will quit; that staffing will wither and inmates will be locked in their cells for days at a time. Neff says that experts he’s conversed with also predict that there could be some riots. Following these riots, the government would send the National Guard, a military organization with little training in how to run a prison.. “There’s all sorts of dystopian scenarios,” Neff says.
On April 11, Neff’s prediction rang true: There was a riot in Stewart Detention Center related to COVID-19. Rosenbluth, who learned details of the riot, says, “the rumor inside the detention center has been that there was going to be mass releases, that 200-300 people were going to get released. And of course that was not true. So these guys were really upset….They knocked on the doors of their cells, shouting, ‘Let us out! Let us out!’ Somehow, these detainees ended up escaping their cells into the center yard.”
“I don’t have all of the details,” Rosenbluth continues,“but they were pounding on the windows of some of the other units and trying to get the other units to join them.” The guards dressed in riot gear, including bean-bag guns, and confronted the protestors with pepper spray. No one was critically injured, but the facility was on lockdown from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., meaning that no detainee could phone out of the building. Rosenbluth said he was “surprised that it [the riot] didn’t happen sooner.”
Rosenbluth also reported that all guards in Stewart were not wearing full protective gear — a mask and gloves — until the morning of April 11. And even though the guards now have protective gear, the detainees possess none at all. “Some of the detainees tried to make protective masks out of towels.” These masks were confiscated. “There’s no consistent use of hand sanitizer. One of the units reported that their soap dispenser hasn’t been working in a month. And that they’re using hair shampoo to wash their hands.”
Despite the rampant lack of care throughout Stewart, many detainees will not report themselves sick due to the solitary confinement met with that diagnosis. A doctor is not readily available — often, immigrants are waiting for days — and the isolation cells are tiny and unclean. As far as Rosenbluth knows, as of April 11th, no detainees have been tested. There are no guidelines in place to comprehensively halt the spread of the virus.
Even if you don’t care about the detainees themselves, Rosenbluth says, “the guards come and go every day.” The lives of these workers are on the line. “They’re going to carry COVID out to their families and to their friends and to their communities.” Rosenbluth’s major concern is that these detention centers will continue to keep their practices stagnant despite the imminent threat of coronavirus.
“This is a time bomb,” he says. “These detention centers are a ticking time bomb.”
And in a detention center with improper hygiene and rampant violations of human rights, every stressor, every trauma, every instance of neglect will push the explosive closer and closer to detonation.
Lily Levin is a social justice advocate and undergraduate student at Duke University.