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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

This Thanksgiving, dream a little dream for youth around the country

Young people like Noemi Degante and Fredd Reyes deserve the opportunity to contribute to the country they have called home for most of their lives. Instead, they will spend this Thanksgiving under arrest and in detention for demanding a chance to complete college and strive for successful careers and fulfilling lives.

After a long night of studying for an exam at Guilford Technical Community College, Fredd Reyes was rudely awakened by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials at 5am on a morning in September. He was handcuffed and taken from his home in North Carolina to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, a place that has been the subject of recent critiques and protests for it’s inhumane immigration detention practices.

Fredd, who was brought to the U.S. from Guatemala when his parents were fleeing persecution and death threats, has spent the 22 years that he has lived in this country working hard to be a model student and create the life that his parents envisioned for him. The reasons for Fredd’s detention are the same as those holding back the 2.1 million undocumented young people around the United States who were brought here as children by their parents. For all these young people, the DREAM Act (The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) is the only hope for the chance to make the most out of the k-12 education that they have received and follow their aspirations. If passed, the DREAM Act would make undocumented people like Fredd eligible for a green card and a path to citizenship, as long as they came to the U.S. before the age of 16 (and are below the age of 35 when the law is passed), have been in the country for more than 6 years, and once they have completed at least two years of a college degree or military service. The DREAM Act, which will be coming up for a vote in the Senate before the end of the lame duck session, has received bipartisan support a number of times in the past, but has always stopped short of being passed.

Following Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s announcement that he would reintroduce the DREAM Act in Congress after Thanksgiving, DREAM Activists around the country have upped the anti to urge Congress to work together to make sure that it is passed this time around. Two weeks ago a dozen students at the University of Texas in San Antonio began a hunger strike to urge Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has supported the DREAM Act in the past but refused to vote for it in September, to agree to vote for the bill when it is reintroduced in Congress. This week, another 30 students from University of Texas campuses in Austin, Dallas, Arlington, Brownsville and Edinburg, as well as the University of North Texas in Denton, joined the hunger strike to drive the message home. The strike is being led by DREAM Act NOW, a group that is part of the national coalition called United we DREAM, which brings together DREAM Activists in all the states. Lucy Martinez, who is a second year at UT San Antonio and one of the leaders of strike said that the strike is their last resort since they “have tried everything else. We have done lobbying, legislative visits, marches, sit-ins. We are tired of it.” Martinez likened the hunger strike to “what we go through in our everyday lives — starving without a future.”

Also trying to convince a Republican who has gone from supporting the DREAM Act to taking a stand against it, Noemi Degante in Arizona was arrested and charged with ‘unlawful conduct and demonstrating in a building in the Capitol complex’ after staging a sit-in outside Sen. Jon McCain’s office on November 17th. She, and five other “dreamers” had waited all day to see him, only to be denied a conversation with him he was finally spotted. When they told him that they wanted a chance to serve the country the same way that he did, he replied, “Good, go serve.” Noemi returned to waiting after that, and was arrested when she refused to leave after the office closed.

Frank Sharry, who is the Executive Director of the advocacy organization, America’s Voice, hosted a press conference on the DREAM Act on November 18th at which he stated that the majority of the lobbying efforts are currently being directed at the Republican Senators who have voted for previous versions of the DREAM Act in the past and have since reversed their positions. As the Senate vote on the DREAM Act approaches, it is imperative that Congress men and women are made aware that beyond the political realm, this bill would have a tremendous impact on the on the well-being of countless families, and on the future of this country, it’s youth and it’s economy. The national DREAM Act campaign, United we DREAM, has designated November 29th and 30th as National Dream Days of Action. So as you sit down to give thanks and enjoy your family this Thanksgiving, make sure you think of all the families that have been separated and all the young people that need the chance to dream. Pick up the phone and call your Senators to demand the DREAM Act. Happy Thanksgiving!

Watch these young dreamers and be inspired!

Photo courtesy of blog.nj.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