A Suburban Mom’s Eyewitness Account of Conditions Inside an Immigrant Detention Center

prison-370112_1920This past weekend, my friend and neighbor Esther Graff-Radford visited the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison for immigrant detainees that’s located about 150 miles outside of Atlanta. It’s where the breadwinner father of a family I know has been detained since July 2017, painfully beyond the reach of his wife and children. Esther went with a mutual friend of ours, Marilyn McGinnis, who is a volunteer with and board member of El Refugio, a hospitality house that serves the family and friends of men detained at Stewart. I have invited Esther to share her experience here.

Guest post by: Esther Graff-Radford

This past weekend I went down to Lumpkin, GA to visit immigration detainees in Stewart Detention Center. It was… intense. I learned a lot, and I highly recommend that everyone of all political stripes go and see for themselves what’s happening.

Stewart Detention Center is for-profit. This means that they have a motive to keep as many people as possible there for as long as possible, while giving them as little of the humane treatment that we taxpayers are paying for as possible. I’m pretty middle-of-the-road on immigration policy conversations, and I can often see merit and problems in many sides of the debate that I hear. But I don’t think this for-profit detention center and the conditions there fit with what any decent person thinks we should be doing.

This is civil detention. These people aren’t serving time for any crime. They’re waiting for a judge to determine whether they should get asylum, or waiting for a deportation hearing, or waiting to get deported after a deportation order has been issued. I fully agree with robust enforcement of our immigration laws, but Stewart has every incentive for abuse because of its profit motive and because it’s really hard for detainees to get any outside contact for accountability.

I met with “Sam,” a man in the prime of his life from a Caribbean nation. He had been in Stewart for 1.25 YEARS awaiting his asylum determination. He was a skilled laborer, a father, and a devout Baptist. He said that his faith was keeping him sane, and he had found a group of other detainees to pray with, despite language barriers. His request: a Bible in his language and a dictionary. Sam speaks little English and has no lawyer. I could tell that he is a naturally joyful person, but his eyes were so hopeless. I was the first person to visit him in months, at least.

We are paying about $140 per day to keep people like Sam locked up, when we could be monitoring them with ankle bracelets and allowing them to feed and clothe themselves at their own expense. In addition, we are warehousing healthy young men in substandard conditions that lead to mental and physical illness and suicide. Not because this is the best way to actually enforce our laws, but because Core Civic (formerly CCA) has good lobbyists and is making a profit every day Sam is incarcerated.

Stewart fails to provide adequate food, etc. and then tells people they can work for a dollar a day to buy extra necessities. CCA has argued that this is not slavery because detainees have a choice to work or not. But inmates have reported that if they refuse they are placed into solitary confinement. Solitary is so extreme that people have killed themselves from the mental strain.

I thought that when we ordered someone deported, we deported them. But detainees at Stewart report being kept there at our expense months after deportation orders are issued.

I saw moms quietly sobbing while their babies played peek-a-boo with Daddy through the visitation glass, with Daddy trying to smile through tears. Those are the lucky ones, whose families have the means to visit them sometimes. I heard accounts of fathers whose wives and children were living in homeless shelters because they could no longer help them. I don’t know what choices or hardships led them to be in the U.S., but I know that I look at those kids and I see American citizens who will have expensive, lifelong effects caused by OUR choices. We should enforce our laws. We should do so humanely and effectively. That’s not happening down in Lumpkin.

I was in Lumpkin along with all sorts of people, from a progressive teen group to a conservative evangelical church group. We couldn’t have all been more different politically, and we all left feeling that it’s not right, what’s happening down there.

If you want to visit or learn more, please contact El Refugio. Even if you cannot drive down to Lumpkin for a day to visit a detainee, you and your family can participate in El Refugio’s pen pal program. These guys are so cut off from any humanity. Letters, books, artwork, etc. mean so much. Just knowing they are not forgotten means so much. Especially if you speak another language other than English with any degree of fluency, it can be huge. There’s no effort made to house detainees with language-mates. So people can be completely cut off.

Esther Graff-Radford is a homeschooling mom, (sub)urban homesteader, and licensed attorney who enjoys teaching her friends about Constitutional Law in her spare time.

For further reading, access the detailed account of Georgia immigrant detention centers by Project South. If you would like to contact your Congressional representatives to express concern over these inhumane detention practices, this link will help you do that.

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