A Georgia detention center with the second-highest COVID-19 rate in the nation recently expanded the population of immigrants it detains to include women.
In a statement to Prism, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed that as of Jan. 27, the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, detains 11 women. This is an increase from December when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Stewart had two women in custody.
ICE said that it plans to detain women at Stewart for the foreseeable future. This is the first time the facility has detained women since at least 2008. Advocates are concerned about the federal immigration agency’s decision to transfer women during a pandemic — especially to Stewart, which is notorious for abuse, medical neglect, and in-custody deaths. In July, Gaby Del Valle and José Olivares reported for The Intercept that medically vulnerable immigrants detained at Stewart were subject to excessive force by guards, including incidents in which guards removed disabled immigrants from wheelchairs and “hurled” them onto the floor.
For more than a decade, women in ICE custody have sounded the alarm about delays in medical treatment and testing in cases where their lives could be at risk; the shackling of pregnant people; and failures to provide even the most basic and routine care — all in violation of ICE’s own standards for detaining women. The federal immigration agency’s move to detain women at Stewart means that CoreCivic would have to expand its healthcare services to include sexual and reproductive health care, for example, and possibly prenatal care.
A spokesperson for ICE told Prism that Stewart “is equipped and prepared to detain females and will continue to coordinate female medical care with [ICE Health Service Corps] as they do all medical care,” but Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal advocacy director at the organization Project South, said the facility has proven itself to be incapable of providing proper medical care.
In 2009, the attorney represented the family of Roberto Medina-Martinez, a 39-year-old immigrant who died of a treatable heart infection while detained at Stewart. Medina-Martinez’s case revealed that the detention center’s doctor failed to review more than 1,000 physical exams over the course of one year, including Medina-Martinez’s. After Medina-Martinez’s death, the doctor left Stewart and Shahshahani said that for more than three years, the largest detention center in the country did not have a single doctor on site to provide care to the more than 1,700 people detained at Stewart.
Shahshahani suspects that ICE is transferring women to Stewart in order to deflect attention away from the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), the Ocilla, Georgia, facility where a doctor named Mahendra Amin was recently found to be sterilizing detained women and performing other unnecessary gynecological procedures on them without their full and informed consent. In May 2017, Project South published a report that provided extensive documentation of abuses at both Stewart and ICDC.
While some women who were operated on by Amin were deported, a majority have been released from detention as members of Congress continue to mount pressure on ICE to stop detaining women at ICDC. ICE would not say if the women now detained at Stewart were transferred from ICDC, but an ICE spokesperson said the decision to transfer women to Stewart “is not related to any specific issue at other ICE detention facilities and has been in the works for some time.”
Shahshahani told Prism that neither ICE nor CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs Stewart, have given any indication that they care to address the detention center’s history of abuse and neglect. Congress has also failed the immigrants who continue to be detained at Stewart, in spite of years of documented human rights violations and egregious abuses.
“We put out our report outlining these abuses in 2017 and the report was completely dismissed by [officials]. Shortly after, people started dying,” Shahshahani explained, referring to three deaths at the facility that occurred over a span of 15 months, including the deaths of Jean Jimenez-Joseph and Efrain Romero De La Rosa who died by suicide. “There is a pattern of death at Stewart and Congress does not seem to care that people keep dying. [The public] should be very concerned that they are now going to start detaining women there.”
Stewart has turned particularly deadly during the COVID-19 crisis. Detention centers are dangerous for all detained people even without a pandemic, but Stewart has proven to be particularly ill-equipped at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
Stewart has recorded 474 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In recent months, four immigrants have died of COVID-19 at the facility. Guatemalan immigrant Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, 34, died May 24; Costa Rican immigrant Jose Guillen-Vega, 70, died Aug. 10; and Mexican immigrant Cipriano Chavez-Alvarez, 61, died Sept. 21. The most recent COVID-19 death at Stewart occurred January 30. ICE’s press release stated that a 57-year-old Mexican immigrant named Felipe Montes died; however, Prism learned his name was Felix Montes de Oca.
Shahshahani said that the last thing detained people can afford right now is complacency, as the American public may have been lulled into believing that abuses in the detention system have stopped now that former President Donald Trump is no longer in office.
“We need to keep putting pressure on Congress. Irwin is still open, but I believe this is the fundamental reason we saw members of Congress act on behalf of women at Irwin and that’s why women were released and women there no longer see Dr. Amin,” Shahshahani said. “We have seen the power of massive public outrage as a result of the medical abuse against women’s bodies, but the public must speak out before abuses happen again. We cannot afford to be silent and the public can use their voices to help shut these detention centers down.”
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by national media.