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Immigration Detention Conditions in Georgia Run Afoul of Human Rights Standards

Guestblogger: Azadeh ShahshahaniDirector, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project, ACLU of Georgia

In late June, the ACLU delivered a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in response to the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s report on detention of migrants. The report sets out the international and regional human rights legal framework applicable to the detention of migrants, including in regards to vulnerable groups with special protection needs, and discusses alternatives to detention. While the report does not discuss country-specific immigration detention policies and practices, it offers useful recommendations and urges governments to adopt a human rights-based approach.

The ACLU stated in its remarks before the Human Rights Council that,

The U.S. immigration detention system locks up tens of thousands of immigrants unnecessarily every year, exposing detainees — including vulnerable populations such as persons with mental disabilities, asylum-seekers, women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals — to brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement at massive costs to American taxpayers… This system of mass detention persists despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledges that most immigration detainees ‘have a low propensity for violence.’
The ACLU statement also highlighted the May 2012 ACLU of Georgia report titled “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia.” The report covers the four immigration detention centers in Georgia including the largest immigration detention facility in the United States, the Stewart Detention Center. Three of the four facilities are operated by corporations, including Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S.

Findings raise serious concerns about violations of detainees’ due process rights, inadequate living conditions, inadequate medical and mental health care, and abuse of power by those in charge.

Among due process concerns documented are that ICE officers have coerced detainees to sign voluntary orders of removal, non-citizens are detained in excess of a presumptively reasonable time, and there is inadequate information about available pro bono legal services at the facilities. Conditions for attorney visits also raise attorney/client confidentiality issues.

Numerous concerns about cell conditions exist, including overcrowding and temperature extremes. When facilities run out of hygienic items, detainees have to go without. At Irwin, detainees are given used underwear. In at least one case, a female detainee was given soiled underwear, leading to a serious infection.

Food concerns include insufficient quantity and poor quality of food. Additionally, Stewart and NGDC both have “voluntary” work programs where detainees have been coerced to work at wages far below minimum wage and threatened with retaliation if they stop working.

Medical and mental health units are understaffed and initial intake examinations are insufficient. Detainees with mental health disabilities are put in segregation units as a punishment and in lieu of receiving treatment.

Detainees reported that guards yelled threats and racist slurs at them. This verbal abuse was also sometimes accompanied by physical violence. Detainees also relayed personal accounts of guards threatening to or actually placing detainees in segregation as a means of retaliation.

ICE should discontinue detaining immigrants at the corporate-run Stewart and Irwin County Detention Centers given the extent of the documented violations as well as the distance to family and communities of support. Detention center officials should improve food quality and living conditions and supply on-site, full-time medical and mental health care staff. The federal government should also make greater use of cost-effective alternatives to detention instead of continuing to rely on the for-profit prison industry to keep more and more people imprisoned in substandard conditions.

As the ACLU statement to the Human Rights Council concluded,

U.S. immigration authorities should use detention only as a last resort, in those circumstances where no alternative conditions of release would be sufficient to address the government’s concerns about danger or flight risk… The U.S. government should heed the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation to establish a presumption in favor of liberty, first consider alternative non-custodial measures, proceed to an individual assessment and choose the least intrusive or restrictive measure.

Jamil Dakwar, Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program drafted the ACLU statement to the Human Rights Council and contributed to this blog.

Cross posted from Huffington Post

Picture Courtesy of http://www.stewartcountyga.gov/

License to Abuse? Time for Bureau of Prisons to Sever Ties With CCA

Guest blogger: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director, ACLU Foundation of Georgia.

Last week, the ACLU of Georgia submitted comments to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to ask that the agency not renew its contract with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for operation of the McRae Correctional Facility.

McRae is located in Telfair County, Georgia. The prison is owned by CCA, which purchased it in 2000. McRae currently houses a population of low security, adult male, primarily non-citizen prisoners. The contract between CCA and the BOP is set to expire in November 2012.

In addition to McRae, CCA currently manages 4 facilities in Georgia, including the largest immigrant detention facility in the country, the Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin. In 2009, a 39-year-old Stewart detainee, Roberto Martinez Medina, died after a heart infection was allegedly allowed to go untreated.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Indeed, CCA, the largest owner and operator of privatized correctional and detention facilities in the U.S., has had a reputation for poor management, neglect, and turning a blind eye to abuses within its facilities for over 20 years. Since 2003, there have been at least 19 deaths in facilities operated by CCA, including 3 in Georgia.

This pattern of neglect and abuse is also seen at McRae, which has a record of violations of constitutional and BOP standards governing the medical treatment of prisoners. The lack of medical treatment for prisoners at McRae, as demonstrated by letters received from the prisoners by the ACLU of Georgia, is in violation of the 8th Amendment.

One prisoner at the facility suffered from epilepsy as a result of an accident in 2000. He arrived at the facility in 2011 and was taken off his epilepsy medication by the facility’s doctor even though he had extensive documentation of his condition. His complaints to the facility medical unit went unheard. A couple of months later, he had a seizure and had to be taken to the hospital. The doctors at the hospital insisted that he be given medication for his condition. Even though McRae guards now give him medication, they only provide him with half the amount of medication prescribed by the hospital doctor.

Another prisoner at McRae complained numerous times of pain in his abdomen. When he was finally taken before a doctor, he was diagnosed with a hernia and surgery was recommended. However, he was denied this medical treatment that could have abated his pain and suffering. He had to wait months and file numerous complaints before receiving treatment.

According to another prisoner, after a birthday celebration held at the facility, all the prisoners who consumed the meal suffered food poisoning. Because of the low medical capacity of the facility, most of the prisoners suffering from severe diarrhea, dehydration, and stomach cramps did not receive medical care for almost a week.

McRae also has a record of abusive disciplinary practices that violate BOP standards.

One prisoner was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) on February 5, 2010, but did not receive the required notice until March 26, 2010. He was segregated for a total of 97 days, but the disciplinary hearing at which he had a chance to explain his actions only took place on April 12, days before his release into the general population. Documents prepared by McRae employees themselves, such as the incident report, confirm the dates for the various stages of the proceeding which deviate from the Program Statement requirements and reveal other inconsistencies in data entry that may variably suggest carelessness or falsification of records. Another prisoner’s experience of placement in the SHU is similarly replete with McRae employees’ failure to follow the applicable standards, including 5 months of SHU placement without the required notices to the prisoner, periodic reviews, or hearings.

Perhaps most disturbing is the pattern of McRae employees’ possibly retaliatory conduct that begins to emerge from these accounts. The prisoners subjected to discipline were all active in exercising their right to pursue legal activities as provided for in federal regulations and BOP policy. They had either previously filed grievance reports against the facility, provided legal assistance to other prisoners, or both. And they were all placed at the SHU for prolonged periods of time without the observance of procedural safeguards such as the periodic review process.

On July 13, 2011, three representatives from the BOP met with residents of McRae and surrounding communities for a public hearing on whether the agency should renew its contract with CCA for operation of McRae. Among those who addressed the panel of BOP representatives were employees of the correctional facility, including two guards and two medical staff. The image touted by McRae employees was that of a “humane, secure, and safe” facility. One CCA officer said that the facility is known for its hospitality and friendliness: “CCA at McRae is good to the inmates here, and the inmates know it.” One of the facility nurses said that inmates at McRae “know medical cares about them and will care for them.”

Voices of McRae prisoners were absent from the hearing. Had they been offered an opportunity, they would have presented a very different account.

The Supreme Court has stated: “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison prisoners from the protections of the Constitution.” Incarcerated people depend on the facility operators to provide for basic human needs, adequate living conditions, food, and medical treatment.

CCA has failed in its obligation to run the McRae Correctional Facility in a manner comporting with basic human dignity. Should the BOP choose to renew this contract, it will demonstrate the agency’s condoning of CCA’s failure to live up to its contractual and social obligations.

Photo courtesy of mitchellmcelroy.wordpress.com

An ongoing battle to ensure due process and keep families together

Last Friday, Emily Guzman spoke at a vigil outside the Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia where her husband, Pedro Guzman, has been held for over a year. Pedro was brought by his mother from Guatemala to the United States at the age of 8, and they stayed on after being denied asylum. He was arrested a year ago after his mother was denied a request to stay on in the country legally. Despite being married to an American, he has been kept in detention while fighting his case, with limited access to medical care and to visits with his mother, his wife and his four-year-old son, Logan. His wife Emily, who is an American citizen, spoke about the traumatic experience that her family has been through while Pedro has been fighting deportation from prison-

I never knew that the immigration system in the United States was so outrageously flawed until I began to experience it through my husband, Pedro is one of the very few fighting his case in immigration detention. It is a daily emotional fight for him to continue without his freedom.

Pedro’s story is just one of the myriad of reasons why human rights organizations and supporters marched to the Stewart Detention Center last Friday. The groups, including the Georgia Detention Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia, were seeking to draw attention to the “traumatic effects” that detention has on immigrant families. The marchers carried lists with the names of over 110 people who have died in immigration detention since 2003, including 39-year-old Roberto Martinez-Medina and 50-year-old Pedro Gumayagay who were detained at Stewart. This protest followed the release of a report by the Georgia Detention Center about the lack of transparency, accountability and due process at the Stewart Detention Center, which, as one of the largest (and most remote) detention centers in the country, has a vast list of human rights violations including lack of waiting periods of 65 days for cases to be heard, lack adequate medical care, and the imposition of solitary confinement without a hearing.

In addition to calling for the release of Pedro and the closure of the detention center in favor of alternatives to detention that are cheaper and more humane, the groups also aimed to highlight the “collusion between government officials and for-profit corporations to place profits and politics over people.” The overt connections between the massive expansion of the detention system and the direct profit made by private prison companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, which runs the Stewart Detention Center) were thrown into the spotlight when National Public Radio (NPR) did a story exposing the ties between CCA and the SB1070 immigration law in Arizona.

8 of the protesters, including Emily Guzman’s mother, Pamela Alberda, were arrested as they crossed over a ‘Do Not Enter’ tape at the entrance to the detention center. They were released on bond later the same day. Speaking about the impending protest and vigil, an ICE spokesperson said-

ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. We recognize that our nation’s broken immigration system requires serious solutions, and we fully support comprehensive immigration reform efforts.

It is a relief to know that in the midst of this glaring lack of due process and fairness, a modicum of justice also exists. In what is a significant victory for immigrant rights activists, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled yesterday that all defendants with limited English proficiency have a right to an interpreter for criminal trials. Speaking about the action taken by the ACLU of Georgia and the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center on the issue, Azadeh Shahshahani, Director of the National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU of Georgia said that the court ruling upheld a basic tenet of the U.S. Constitution-

The court acknowledged that we don’t have two systems of justice in this country – one for English-speakers and another for everyone else. The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to everyone in this country, not just fluent English-speakers.

In keeping with the spirit of the Constitution practiced by the Georgia Supreme Court, let us hope that these same principles are upheld in all aspects of life, ensuring that everyone is treated equally with respect to dignity, justice, due process and fairness.

Photo courtesy of Jim Toren

Prison companies’ profit motive sheds new light on Arizona’s immigration law

For months after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed off on the draconian immigration law, SB1070, protestors raged about the repercussions of a law that made it mandatory for police to stop and check the papers of anyone that they deemed “reasonably suspicious” of being undocumented. Human rights activists protested the inevitable implication of racial profiling that the law brought with it, while supporters of the law argued that it would be an effective solution to the immigration issue. When analyzing how the law came to be, the progressive media went to great lengths to highlight the direct links between those who drafted the law and “hate” groups the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FIRM) and white supremacist organizations. In all this, little was said about how the law came about in the first place.

A breaking investigation conducted by NPR and released today reveals that there is a more insidious motive behind the drafting of the Arizona law; one that leaves passionate rhetoric behind and focuses purely on profit. Based on the analysis of hundreds of thousands of campaign finance reports of people like Senator Russell Pearce, the legislator that was responsible for introducing SB1070 before the House of Representatives, as well as the corporate records of numerous prison companies, NPR has found deep financial ties between the drafting and introduction of the bill, and the private prison industry, that stands to benefit millions of dollars from increased immigrant detention.

The NPR investigation found that the seeds of the immigration bill were sown at a meeting of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a semi-secret group that comprises of state legislators like Pearce, as well as the heads of big private corporations such as ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association, and billion dollar companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the United States. All of the 50 members present for the meeting in December, 2009 where Pearce first presented his idea for SB1070, voted to support it, and the exact “model bill” that he presented at the meeting became the law that Jan Brewer passed in April, 2010.

Once SB1070 was introduced in the House in January by Senator Pearce, it was backed by thirty six sponsors, most of whom had been present at the December meeting of ALEC. Almost immediately, thirty of the thirty-six sponsors received generous donations from all the big private prison companies, GEO Group, Corrections Corporation of America, and Management and Training Corporation. Further, it was clear that, if executed, this law would be hugely profitable for the prison companies. The records of CCA showed that prison executives were relying on immigration detention as their next big market.

Ties between the massive expansion of immigrant detention and the subsequent growth and profit for the largely privately run prison system are not new. What is even more disturbing is the concrete evidence that points to the lack of accountability that comes with this prison system that is increasingly dysfunctional, as well as a detention system that denies due process and fairness to hundreds of men, women and children.

Advocate groups such as the NDLON have called for a further investigation into the collaboration between private corporations and conservative politicians. Pablo Alvarado, the Executive Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network released a statement today saying-

We have done much to confront the hate within the recent immigration debate…but what this report brings to light is that behind the odious rhetoric there are corporations cashing in…These corporations and the politicians they fund are less concerned with borders than they are profit margins. We call on Russell Pearce to fully disclose his ties with those who may benefit financially from his initiatives and we ask that a deeper investigation be launched into the private interests gaining from the human rights crisis in Arizona.

Photo courtesy of npr.org

ICE rolls out detention reforms on one hand, and endorses stun-guns on the other

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has not been able to keep itself out of hot water recently. Between the agency’s own admissions of mismanagement, a leaked memo, records highs in deportations, and the recent sexual assault cases in detention centers calling for greater oversight, ICE has been under a lot of fire from civil rights advocates to fulfill their delayed promises of overhaul and detention reform.

In the context of ICE’s multiple misadventures, an internal ICE email obtained by the Houston Chronicle a few days ago comes as a huge relief to advocates as it announces a series of concrete changes that ICE is planning to implement at several privately owned detention centers. The 28 changes listed in the email range from superficial changes like “softening the look of the facility” with new paint, new bedding, hanging plants and “fresh carrot sticks,” to more substantive ones like eliminating pat-down searches, lock-downs and lights-out for low risk detainees, providing unmonitored phone calls and email access, extending the duration that visitors can stay, increasing attorney access and allowing low-risk detainees to wear their own clothing or non-penal attire.

Beth Gibson, ICE’s senior counselor to Assistant Secretary John Morton and a leader of the detention reform effort, has committed to some of the changes being carried out within 30 days, while others will take up to 6 months to be effected. The changes outlined in the email are slated to be implemented in nine detention facilities in Texas, Arizona, New Jersey, California and Georgia, all owned and managed by the Corrections Corporations of America, one of the nation’s biggest private contractors that ICE uses for immigrant detainees. It does not seem like a complete coincidence that ICE and CCR decided on these changes while CCR is under investigation for allegations of sexual assault against one of their guards at a Texas facility, who allegedly groped female detainees on their way to being deported.

Most important is the much needed shift in philosophy behind immigrant detention that ICE senior counselor Beth Gibson attested to when speaking about the changes. Speaking about the purpose of detention facilities, she said-

When people come to our custody, we’re detaining them to effect their removal…It’s about deportation. It’s not about punishing people for a crime they committed.

Increasing recreational activities for low-risk detainees and introducing dance, cooking, computer classes as well as movie nights and and a dinner menu that has expanded to include a vegetable bar might seem like minor changes, but are, in fact, hard fought victories for immigrant advocates. Lory Rosenberg, policy and advocacy director for Refugee and Migrants’ Rights for Amnesty International was pleased with the changes. She said-

A lot of these measures are what we’ve been advocating for. Many of these points are very important to changing the system from a penal system, which is inappropriate in an immigration context, to a civil detention system.

As expected, there has already been opposition to the reforms from various quarters. Union members are worried for the safety of the staff at the detention facilities, and feel that the absence of pat-down searches and lock-downs could be potentially dangerous as “some detainees may be classified as low-risk because they have no serious criminal history but still may be gang members that haven’t been caught doing anything wrong yet.”

When it comes to local jails that house immigrant detainees, it is precisely this argument of jail administrators and union members that seems to have won. Ironically, while ICE makes detention reform plans that lean towards a more humane and less penal detention system, the agency has simultaneously relaxed their ban on the use of stun guns or Tasers on detainees in local jails. When a Sheriff’s Deputy in a Sherburne County jail used a stun-gun on Salaad Mahamed (a pre-trial immigrant detainee who had come to the U.S. seeking political asylum) in 2007, the action was in violation of federal immigration standards for the treatment of immigrant detainees. ICE had banned the use of Electro-Muscular Disruption Devices (Tasers) for safety reasons in 2003, and gave the Sherburne County jail in Minnesota an evaluation rating of “deficient” for its use of stun-guns on detainees.

However, while Mahammed, who was shot in his hand and testicles for arguing with a guard over a TV channel, suffers from incontinence, impotence, mental trauma and blackouts as a result of his ordeal, in August of 2009, ICE seems to have relaxed its ban on Tasers and reversed its previous “deficient” rating for Sherburne County jail to “acceptable.” This shift seems largely attributable to pressure from local law enforcement that runs these jails, and their insistence on having the same rules apply for “civil detainees and jail inmates who live under the same roof.” Worse still, ICE only communicated this change in policy directly to the individual jails it deals with, without making a public announcement of it. Helen Harnett, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, which monitors detainee treatment was shocked at the change. She said-

It’s a radical shift. I think the reason it’s so surprising is Secretary Napolitano and ICE assistant secretary John Morton announced a series of changes. They called it ‘an overhaul to the immigration system to make it truly civil,’ and there’s a lot of staff at ICE national working on this change right now.

As long as ICE continues to rely on the disparate combination of government-run detention centers, private facilities and local jails to house immigrant detainees, there will continue to be extreme inconsistencies in detention conditions across the board. Moreover, promising reforms supporting a more humane civil detention system, while sanctioning violence against detainees at the same time shows a drastic contradiction in detention policy from within ICE itself that needs to be addressed before more and more people suffer life-long trauma and even death at the hands of immigrant detention.

Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com

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One year ago, a private profit detention center saw a spate of riots in reponse to a detainee death

reeves_prison_uprising1On December 12th 2008, 32 year old Jesus Manuel Galindo died in solitary confinement at Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) in Pecos, Texas. Galindo was a Mexican citizen whose death was caused by multiple seizures and inadequate medication and medical care. He had been in solitary confinement in the ‘security housing unit,’ which the inmates called “the hole,” since November, and during that time his mother and fellow inmates had repeatedly warned prison authorities that Galindo was suffering from severe seizures and was desperately in need of daily medication for epilepsy.

By the time Galindo’s body was found in his solitary cell, rigor mortis had already set it, indicating that he had been dead for some hours. A toxicology report found “below-therapeutic levels” of Dilantin, a cheap anti-epileptic drug, in his blood. The medication is only effective if administered in fixed dosages with the patient’s blood being check regularly. According to Robert Cain, a neurologist who reviewed Galindo’s autopsy, he concluded that “[w]ith multiple seizures, inadequate levels of medication and left in isolation without supervision, he was set up to die.” The medical neglect and human rights abuses at the Reeves facility have resulted in nine reported deaths over the past four years.

According to a Reeves County prisoner:

We are on lock down 21 hours a day. When you’re sick they don’t call you till a week or a month later. There’s people that put in request for surgery over six months ago and they still haven’t gotten it.

Jesus Galindo’s death sparked off two multi-day uprisings by inmates in December 2008 and January 2009 to protest the inhumane treatment and lack of medical attention for the detainees. When they saw Galindo’s body being removed from the facility in a large black plastic bag, the inmates set fire to the recreational facility and occupied the exercise yard overnight. The first uprising or “motin” as the Spanish speaking inmates call it lasted only 24 hours, causing the prison one million dollars in damage.

After the first riot, the inmates sent a delegation of seven representatives to talk with the authorities.

They explained that the uprising had erupted from widespread dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of the prison: inedible food, a dearth of legal resources, the use of solitary confinement to punish people who complained about their medical treatment, overcrowding and, above all, poor health care.

A month later there was a second riot at the detention center during which detainees set fire to the security housing unit, demanding immediate redress for their demands. This insurrection lasted five days and cost the prison 20 million dollars. One year later, the inmates’ demands are yet to be met.

The Reeves County Detention Center is owned by the GEO Group, and is the largest privately owned prison facility in the world, housing 3,700 detainees. With the number of prosecutions of immigration crimes surging over the last few years, the need for detention centers and jails has also gone up. 68,000 people were prosecuted for immigration-related offenses in the first nine months of 2009, and 50% of those took place in Texas. Following the huge increase in immigration related arrests, federal agencies have outsourced the building and administration of detention facilities to private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. For-profit prison facilities are run as low-risk and high-reward for the corporations that run them, and the immigration facilities such as the RCDC are specifically located in remote, economically deprived communities.

A Boston Review article discusses the problem with privately managed prisons and their lack of accountability:

Over the past eight years, the prison giants CCA ($1.6 billion in annual revenue) and GEO Group ($1.1 billion) have racked up record profits, with jumps in revenue and profits roughly paralleling the rising numbers of detained immigrants…Prisons are owned by local governments, but local oversight of finances is rare, and the condition of prisoners is often ignored. Inmates such as those in Pecos are technically in the custody of the federal government, but they are in fact in the custody of corporations with little or no federal supervision. So labyrinthine are the contracting and financing arrangements that there are no clear pathways to determine responsibility and accountability. Yet every contract provides an obvious and unimpeded flow of money to the private industry and consultants.

In commemoration of the one year anniversary of the uprisings and Jesus Galindo’s death, and in the spirit of International Human Rights Day, a number of rights advocate organizations are coming together to denounce the neglect of human rights and the continuing abhorrent living conditions at the Reeves County Detention Center. The ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, Southwest Worker’s Union, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights are organizing a march and vigil on December 12th to draw attention to the events of last year and demand accountability from the GEO group. The organizations have also drafted a letter to the BOP (The Bureau of Prisons) demanding that it terminate its contract with Reeves County and the GEO Group if they fail to comply with basic detention standards.

And for an intimate look at immigration detention-related deaths, check out Breakthrough’s End Homeland Guantanamos campaign.

Photo courtesy of www.malcolm-che.com