Under the Shadow of Trump, Dismantling Obama’s Deportation Machine

Communities are fighting back against an immigrant prison in rural Georgia.

Sarah Lazare May 31, 2017

Like immigrant prisons across the country, the Stewart Detention Center in southwestern Georgia is plagued with accusations of human rights abuses. (Steve Pavey/ Hope in Focus)

Like immi­grant pris­ons across the coun­try, the Stew­art Deten­tion Cen­ter in south­west­ern Geor­gia is plagued with accu­sa­tions of human rights abus­es, includ­ing charges that its author­i­ties rou­tine­ly deny health­care, pro­vide sub­stan­dard food and water and sub­ject peo­ple to pro­longed seg­re­ga­tion. After a 27-year-old Pana­man­ian nation­al com­mit­ted sui­cide at the facil­i­ty on May 15, fol­low­ing a 19-day stint in soli­tary con­fine­ment, a coali­tion of social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions is demand­ing that the deten­tion cen­ter be shut­tered on the grounds that it con­sti­tutes a dead­ly human rights vio­la­tion zone that can­not be salvaged.

"Those targeted by multiple systems of oppression pay the greatest price."

Stew­art is not the only Geor­gia facil­i­ty that has raised the alarm of the coali­tion, which includes Project South, the Black Alliance for Just Immi­gra­tion and Geor­gia Deten­tion Watch. Ear­li­er this month, the groups protest­ed out­side the down­town Atlanta offices of U.S. Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) to demand the clo­sure of cen­ters, includ­ing the Atlanta City Deten­tion Cen­ter, which was the cus­to­di­an of Atulku­mar Babub­hai Patel, a 58-year-old Indi­an nation­al, when he died this month, report­ed­ly of com­pli­ca­tions from con­ges­tive heart failure.

We need to shut down these deten­tion cen­ters and end soli­tary con­fine­ment, which does irre­versible dam­age to men­tal health,” Lovette Thomp­son, an orga­niz­er with the Black Alliance for Just Immi­gra­tion, told In These Times. It is very impor­tant that we end these deten­tion cen­ters alto­geth­er. Pris­ons are the prob­lem with our soci­ety and def­i­nite­ly not the solution.”

Thomp­son is one of count­less orga­niz­ers across the South shin­ing a light on immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters, which are often hid­den away in rur­al and remote areas. Many of those on the front lines of these efforts con­ceive of their work as part of a larg­er move­ment to chal­lenge harsh, anti-immi­grant poli­cies, as well as the prison-indus­tri­al com­plex in a coun­try that is by far the world’s largest jail­er. They are orga­niz­ing to defend black and brown migrants and refugees, dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get­ed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s crack­down, and fun­neled into the dead­ly depor­ta­tion appa­ra­tus for­ti­fied and expand­ed by for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

Resist­ing the depor­ta­tion-indus­tri­al complex

Like oth­ers in this move­ment, the Geor­gia coali­tion finds itself in the crosshairs of a Trump admin­is­tra­tion hell-bent on imple­ment­ing the racist, anti-immi­grant incite­ment that shaped its cam­paign. Dur­ing the first three months of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, immi­gra­tion arrests spiked 38 per­cent com­pared to the same peri­od last year. Despite the increase in arrests, depor­ta­tions fell 12 per­cent dur­ing this peri­od, accord­ing to Thomas Homan, the act­ing direc­tor of ICE. This means that, of the 41,318 peo­ple who were arrest­ed by ICE between Jan­u­ary 22 and April 29, many find them­selves trapped in prison-like facil­i­ties, which have been rocked by hunger strikes and protests over abu­sive and indef­i­nite detention.

But the coali­tion also faces the chal­lenge of dis­man­tling the depor­ta­tion machine that was built by Oba­ma before it was hand­ed over to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Between 2009 and 2015, Oba­ma deport­ed more than 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple, an increase of 23 per­cent from his pre­de­ces­sor George W. Bush. This num­ber does not take into account those indi­vid­u­als who died seek­ing entry to the Unit­ed States, were turned away at the bor­der or self-deported.

Obama’s his­toric depor­ta­tions were cou­pled with high lev­els of incar­cer­a­tion. The Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty reports that, in fis­cal year 2016, ICE locked up close to 353,000 peo­ple. In 2014, Oba­ma made fam­i­ly deten­tion cen­ters” a cen­ter­piece of his response to large-scale, vio­lent dis­place­ment from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, incar­cer­at­ing moth­ers with their chil­dren in prison-like facilities.

It is a real dis­grace that Oba­ma didn’t dis­man­tle fam­i­ly deten­tion before he left office,” Cristi­na Park­er, an orga­niz­er with the Texas-based group Grass­roots Lead­er­ship, told In These Times. He put it into the hands of an extreme admin­is­tra­tion. Oba­ma real­ly per­fect­ed the sys­tem with respect to mass deportations.”

His­to­ry of abuse at Stewart

With a capac­i­ty of 1,752 peo­ple, Stew­art is oper­at­ed by the pri­vate com­pa­ny Core­Civic, for­mer­ly the Cor­rec­tions Cor­po­ra­tion of Amer­i­ca, under con­tract with ICE. This pri­vate own­er­ship is emblem­at­ic of a nation­wide trend: In 2015, 62 per­cent of ICE deten­tion beds were oper­at­ed by for-prof­it com­pa­nies, as com­pared to 49 per­cent in 2009.

This month, Project South and Penn State Law released a report on Stew­art and the Irwin Coun­ty Deten­tion Cen­ter in Ocil­la, Geor­gia. It found that the liv­ing con­di­tions at both do not com­ply with the inter­na­tion­al stan­dards of deten­tion.” Due to the remote loca­tion of the facil­i­ties, those detained are torn away from their fam­i­lies and legal coun­sel, the report states. In addi­tion, the food and water pro­vid­ed in these deten­tion cen­ters are not hygien­ic. Either the food that is pro­vid­ed is stale or spoiled, or sev­er­al for­eign par­ti­cles are found in it.”

Accord­ing to the report, one unnamed man from Soma­lia, detained at Stew­art, said that he was placed in seg­re­ga­tion in retal­i­a­tion for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a hunger strike. There were about twen­ty oth­er Soma­li detainees in seg­re­ga­tion for the hunger strike,” he told researchers, with­out pro­vid­ing a pre­cise date. In seg­re­ga­tion, I could not see out­side and did not know if it was day or night. I could see the oth­er detainees through a small window.”

Such prac­tices are con­firmed by recent report­ing. Cit­ing doc­u­ments obtained through a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request, The Verge report­ed in Feb­ru­ary, Begin­ning last April, and pick­ing up in the weeks fol­low­ing the Novem­ber elec­tion, dozens of detainees at an Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment facil­i­ty in rur­al Geor­gia [Stew­art] went on hunger strike in protest of their deten­tion.” Accord­ing to jour­nal­ist Spencer Wood­man, staff began imme­di­ate­ly lock­ing them in soli­tary con­fine­ment for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the non-vio­lent protest.”

As recent­ly as this month, a fed­er­al judge ruled that Stew­art can force-feed Vitaly Novikov, a 61-year-old detained Ukrain­ian man, who had been wag­ing a hunger strike. The forced feed­ing of peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in Guan­tanamo Bay was con­demned as tor­ture by the Unit­ed Nations’ human rights office in 2013.

Also this month, Stew­art was named as one of the facil­i­ties in an Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU) law­suit seek­ing infor­ma­tion about abuse and retal­i­a­tion tar­get­ing hunger strik­ers in ICE facil­i­ties, includ­ing forced feed­ing and soli­tary con­fine­ment. ICE has refused to turn over doc­u­ments relat­ed to hunger strikes,” Carl Takei, an attor­ney with the ACLU’s Nation­al Prison Project, said in a press state­ment about the suit, adding: We want to know just how wide­spread the abuse is.”

Fight­ing to save lives

Despite sup­port from the out­side, some peo­ple do not sur­vive their ordeals. Jean Jimenez-Joseph, the 27-year-old Pana­man­ian nation­al who com­mit­ted sui­cide at Stew­art, died after near­ly three weeks of soli­tary con­fine­ment. El Refu­gio, an orga­ni­za­tion close to Stew­art that sup­ports sep­a­rat­ed fam­i­lies, reports that, the day before Jimenez-Joseph took his life, a vol­un­teer tried to vis­it him but was turned away because of the con­di­tions of his seg­re­ga­tion (soli­tary confinement).”

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE, con­firmed to In These Times that Jimenez-Joseph was in dis­ci­pli­nary seg­re­ga­tion” for 19 days pre­ced­ing his death, adding that his treat­ment was in full accor­dance with agency’s deten­tion pol­i­cy.” He said he did not know how many peo­ple at Stew­art are sub­ject­ed to pro­longed soli­tary confinement.

Inves­ti­ga­tions are under­way in the recent deaths in ICE cus­tody in Geor­gia, Cox claimed. Core­Civic and the warden’s office at Stew­art did not imme­di­ate­ly return requests for comment.

How­ev­er, stud­ies sug­gest that ICE can­not be trust­ed to inves­ti­gate itself. A 2016 report released by the ACLU, Deten­tion Watch Net­work and the Nation­al Immi­grant Jus­tice Cen­ter found that ICE’s vio­la­tion of its own med­ical care stan­dards con­tributed to at least eight in-cus­tody deaths between 2010 and 2012. Instead of instat­ing poli­cies that could review deaths in the future, ICE failed to prop­er­ly inspect such deaths and its own vio­la­tions, the report found.

Mean­while, those tar­get­ed by mul­ti­ple sys­tems of oppres­sion pay the great­est price.

We know that black immi­grants are more like­ly to be in prison and detained by immi­gra­tion because of this,” said Thomp­son. We see it with peo­ple of col­or expe­ri­enc­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion and crim­i­nal­iza­tion on a grand scale. We def­i­nite­ly want to uplift and call for there to be some sort of change or reform in how our sys­tem is. Incar­cer­at­ing more peo­ple is not the solution.”

Thompson’s asser­tions are con­firmed by a recent report, which notes that black peo­ple in the Unit­ed State are far more like­ly to be arrest­ed and impris­oned, mean­ing they are also more like­ly to be tar­get­ed by immi­gra­tion enforcement.

Thanks to long-term orga­niz­ing led by com­mu­ni­ties on the front lines of such oppres­sion, move­ment infra­struc­ture for resis­tance already exists. Through­out the Oba­ma years, com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and fam­i­ly mem­bers mobi­lized out­side immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters across the coun­try, stag­ing vig­ils, protests and pub­lic pres­sure cam­paigns to sup­port those on the inside. In Decem­ber, pro­test­ers shut down an inter­sec­tion in Har­ris­burg, Penn­syl­va­nia, to demand the clo­sure of the Berks Coun­ty Fam­i­ly Deten­tion Cen­ter and call atten­tion to moth­ers forced to spend the hol­i­days incar­cer­at­ed with their children.

Such direct sup­port efforts take place in cities and rur­al areas along­side a revi­tal­ized push to expand sanc­tu­ary nation­wide, to include safe­ty from police as well as ICE, and to mobi­lize com­mu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate in direct defense against deportations.

We do vis­i­ta­tion, we ampli­fy their sto­ries with press state­ments, and we base our demands on what peo­ple inside deten­tion cen­ters are ask­ing,” Azadeh Shahsha­hani, legal and advo­ca­cy direc­tor at Project South, told In These Times. The only way you can real­ly address the issue at a fun­da­men­tal lev­el is to shut [immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters] down. We def­i­nite­ly feel that we’re part of larg­er move­ments to end mass incar­cer­a­tion and the tar­get­ing of black and brown people.”

This arti­cle is part of the Resister’s Digest series, aimed at ampli­fy­ing the sto­ries of front-line com­mu­ni­ties orga­niz­ing in the era of Trump.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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