Reportback: A visit to a for-profit immigration detention center

302 I recently visited Stewart Detention Center, a private immigration prison in Lumpkin, Georgia owned by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The country's largest immigration detention center, the facility has 1752 beds. Some prisoners are awaiting deportation, some are in legal processes to determine if they will be deported, others came requesting asylum from their home countries where they would be in danger if they returned. Some people spend weeks there, some spend years; the average stay is at least 45 days. 

The massive facility is surrounded with barbed wire fences that tower many feet above your head. If you're visiting a prisoner there, you wait outside a massive electronic gate and wait to be buzzed in. Once inside, you fill out paperwork, give your ID, then sit in plastic chairs and wait. You can read the surrounding inspirational posters about "customer service" and the proud advertisements for CCA: "We all know competition makes everything better, why wouldn't it be the same for prisons?" and "Would you rather spend an extra $11 a day on a convicted criminal or an inspired six-year-old?" When they call you, you take everything out of your pockets, put it through an X-ray machine, walk through a metal detector, put your stuff in a locker, and shuffle single-file down a cinderblock hallway (in which CCA was having a charity bake sale with cookies and cakes when I went) into a cement room with windows and telephones, just like on TV.

I visited the prison with a volunteer group called El Refugio, which helps families visit incarcerated loved ones. The group also has a list of people who would like visits from volunteers, and I visited one of these people, as a complete stranger.

At first I was afraid it would be really awkward talking to a stranger across glass through a phone for an hour. But after that one conversation and a couple letters, we've struck up a friendship. Other volunteers explain that it is lonely and desperate being imprisoned, for an unknown amount of time, away from all friends and family and without access to information from the outside. A letter or a one-hour visit may not seem like much to someone on the outside, but to a prisoner they can be like a lifeline.

Prisoners in Stewart are allowed one visit a week, but they often don't get them that often, in part because Lumpkin is so isolated that it is a hardship for families to make the trek. The tiny town doesn't boast many conveniences, not even a grocery store. Families that drive there must drive another 15 minutes to reach the nearest hotel. These difficulties make it impossible for some people to visit, but El Refugio exists to make it easier. They run a guest house right near the prison where families can stay the night and eat for free.

Detainees say they live in hard conditions: they have insufficient and substandard food prepared by untrained workers in filthy kitchens. Prisoners can buy food and goods like stamps and phone cards from the commissary--if they have the money. They are allowed to be outside one hour a day. Transgendered women are housed in the same room with 60 men. Prisoners report failing to receive their prescription medications and being ignored when they request medical attention. In 2009, 39-year-old Roberto Martinez Medina died in Stewart Detention Center--under circumstances that are still not clear--of a heart infection that may have been treatable. 

Many prisoners have no idea what will happen to them when they are finally released. When you are deported, you are flown to the main airport in your country and left there. If you're from Mexico, you are driven across the border and dropped off. You have whatever was in your pockets when you were arrested, be that $0.15 or $15,000. Predators have been known to wait near where people are being left to victimize them. 

The recent growth of immigration detention centers is one facet of the prison industrial complex, the system by which sundry corporations make money off of putting people in jail. These companies depend on inhumane laws like HB87 for the existence and growth of their business--and they lobby to keep these laws and to create new ones. Another part of the prison industrial complex is propaganda, by which the public is convinced that prisoners are dangerous and subhuman, and thus discouraged from fighting for their rights. In this article I have chosen to use terms like "prisoner" and "jail" instead of "detainee": I did not want to hide the truth of exactly what is happening to these people: they are being kept in cages while companies profit from them, not sent to detention for misbehaving in class. I feel that the stigma attached to the word "prisoner" is a part of the propaganda campaign to dehumanize people victimized by the prison system.

If you're interested in prison justice or immigration, visiting is a great oportunity to inform yourself and get a glimpse of what these places are really like. Groups of volunteers go to Lumpkin each weekend, and you can join them. You can ask to be paired with someone who speaks English. If you would like to visit a prisoner or volunteer with the house, visit El Refugio's website or feel free to contact me at