People in two Georgia immigrant detention centers are getting inadequate care in “desperately understaffed” medical units, according to a report released last week by Project South, an Atlanta-based advocacy group.
While detainees often get their required physical exams upon entering the facilities, they may wait a long time for medical treatment, according to the report, which is titled "Imprisoned Justice."
Georgia Health News reported that the study also said the facilities lack medical personnel who speak Spanish (a language spoken by many detainees), and the detainees frequently receive painkillers such as Ibuprofen in place of more appropriate care.
“The detention centers do not comply with DHS’s [Department of Homeland Security’s] own standards,’’ said Azadeh Shahshahani, the Project South legal and advocacy director, at a news conference in Atlanta last week.
The report was based on interviews over the past year with 31 detainees at Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla, 41 in Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, as well as 12 immigrants who were deported to Guatemala.
The two centers, both in rural areas of the state, are run by private companies under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
The centers hold people who are in deportation proceedings because of alleged immigration violations. They may have entered the country without authorization or overstayed a visa, or are charged with crimes ranging from serious offenses to misdemeanors.
Some of those who entered without legal documents were seeking asylum, the report said.
Interviews of 72 detainees at Stewart last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed people from 28 countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, China, Somalia, Ghana, Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. Of the 72, 19 had overstayed a visa.
The new report was done in collaboration with the Penn State Law Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic, Mercer Law School students, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Georgia Detention Watch and Alterna, a faith-based group.
ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards say detainees must be able to get health services on a daily basis, and receive timely follow-up. The standards also call for “effective communication” for non-English-speaking detainees.
ICE spokesman Bryan D. Cox said that because the Project South report cited accounts from anonymous detainees, it was impossible for ICE to rebut or otherwise respond to specific claims.
He said in an email that ICE is “firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.”
Stewart Detention Center is run by CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and Irwin by LaSalle Corrections. Neither facility responded to a request for comment on the report.
A Nigerian man interviewed in July at Irwin said he had a serious medical condition, but was not given prompt care, the report said.
“I had lumps in my chest and blood had begun discharging. . . . When I requested medical care, sometimes no one would reply. I was not given medical care until ICE later approved it,” he said.
A Chinese detainee interviewed by Project South in November said he had been at Stewart almost two years.
“One time, I broke my leg and I waited for at least two hours before seeing a doctor. Then, I waited for a month before being taken to hospital to get X-rays.” he said.
He said he came to the United States seeking asylum because of his Christian faith. China has been accused by U.S. officials of persecuting Christians.
Stewart held an average of 1,600 men last year, and Irwin an average of 400 men and women, Cox said.
The Project South report said that Irwin has three medical staff on duty during the day, and a doctor comes on occasion.
At Irwin, detainees must sign up at 4 a.m. if they want medical attention that day, according to the report. At Stewart, they must do so at 5 a.m, the report said.
No medical personnel at Stewart spoke Spanish at the time the report was written. Medical staff used a phone translation service to communicate with the detainees, according to the report.
The report said that detainees with mental health problems were not being adequately treated and that solitary confinement was sometimes used in place of treatment.
“The use of solitary is far too rampant,” Shahshahani said.
There is a lack of clean drinking water and “detainees are frequently served rotten and spoiled food,” she said.
Some interviewees said the amount of food at meals was inadequate. A number said they had lost weight in detention, including a Jamaican man at Irwin who said he had lost 30 pounds.
Detainees supplement their meals by buying food from the commissary, spending $30 to $100 a week, according to the report.
A man from Mexico held at Irwin Detention Center told interviewers: “I believe the reason the facility gives the detainees so little food is so we will have to buy food from the commissary.”
Interviewees reported the food was mostly based on potatoes, white rice or bread and that fresh produce was absent. This diet created problems for detainees with diabetes, the report said.
Cox, the Southern region communications director for ICE, disputed the report’s claims.
“The facilities named in these allegations are subject to regular inspections, both announced and unannounced,” he said, “and each facility has repeatedly been found to operate in compliance with ICE’s rigorous detention standards.”
He said the 2012 inspection cited by the report actually found medical care at SDC to be well-managed.
ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight “observed efficient systems and processes in place to ensure adequate health care is delivered to the detainees,” he said. The deficiencies found in the report have been corrected, he said.
Georgia has the fourth-largest number of immigration detainees in the nation, according to CIVIC, a national immigration detention visitation network.
Four Georgia facilities are among more than 200 immigrant detention centers across the nation, with a total of about 34,000 beds, according to the Detention Watch Network.
The other two facilities in the state are the Atlanta City Detention Center and the Folkston ICE Processing Center. The latter opened in January.
Asylum-seekers are among the detainees in Georgia, as the report noted. In one example, a young Somali man, interviewed at Stewart in September, said he fled from Somalia to South Africa with his father when he was a teenager. The family was separated, he said. He was hospitalized in South Africa because he had been tortured.
“I take medication now for the trauma,” he said.
His father died in South Africa and he was left alone, he said.
“I traveled to America for asylum, but I had no idea I would be detained. I didn’t think they would detain asylum-seekers. I just asked to apply for asylum and I didn’t know I would be imprisoned.”
Project South is calling for both detention centers to be closed. It also recommends the following:
- Bilingual medical staff should be hired. Centers should provide at least one doctor and one psychiatrist during the week. They should institute a better procedure for those seeking medical attention, with serious medical conditions addressed immediately. Non-emergency care should be provided within 48 hours;
- Detainees with mental disabilities should not be put in segregation;
- Detainees should be served meals at reasonable times and be given adequate time to eat;
- Adequate amounts should be provided, including fresh fruits and vegetables each day;
- The water quality should be brought to standard;
- The kitchen should have specific instructions to provide special diets for detainees who need them.
Stell Simonton is a freelance journalist in Atlanta. A former digital editor/producer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she has contributed to publications including the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.