FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 26, 2020
LUMPKIN, GA — Immigrants detained at the Stewart Detention Center are sounding the alarm about dangerous conditions and a sense of panic in the facility as the COVID-19 crisis grows in Georgia. On March 24, 2020, community organizations throughout Georgia were alerted that around 350 individuals detained at the detention center participated in a hunger strike to call attention to their prolonged and inhumane detention despite the imminent threat of the virus.
Georgia now has more than 1,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including more than 400 hospitalizations. The Stewart Detention Center is 49 miles from Dougherty County which has the third-most confirmed coronavirus infections in the state. Nearly 2,000 men are incarcerated in incredibly close quarters at the privately-run facility, and dozens of detained immigrants are still being brought to the facility each day. More than 200 men at a time must congregate together in the dining area.
Today, folks connected to the individuals detained along with organizers from Siembra NC, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, and Mijente held a Facebook Live press conference. On the call, organizers demanded a stop to the risk of spreading COVID19 by calling for Stewart to release the detainees immediately.
In calls received by Siembra NC, detained immigrants described a dire situation that included lack of COVID-19 preparedness and a growing sense of panic in the facility.
“We’re just waiting to get infected!” said Ventura Quintanar-Rico, 32, of Mexico. “They’re not taking the most basic coronavirus precautions at this place. If one of us gets infected, all of us will, we are not able to stay six feet apart from each other. We share space with 62 other people. We don’t want to die here and it usually takes three to four days to get medical attention here.”
Siembra NC and Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights have also sent a letter to Thomas P. Giles, Acting Director of Atlanta ICE Field Office calling on the detained immigrants to be released. According to the letter, “The current practice of arbitrarily imprisoning individuals during this health crisis leaves many individuals vulnerable to severe health problems and possibly death. In the public interest, we believe it is imperative that you parole these individuals immediately.”
The letter further notes that persons detained report not having access to medicines now, let alone enough medicine or healthcare providers to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak. One man with diabetes reported that he has been asking for his medicine all week without success. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. For over a decade, Project South and Georgia Detention Watch have documented scores of human rights violations at the facility, including lack of medical care.
This week an immigrant detained by ICE in New Jersey tested positive for the virus, and additional hunger strikes are currently underway in detention centers in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Louisiana.
On Tuesday, members of Siembra NC detained at Stewart reported that ICE officers held meetings with each group of 62 detained immigrants in at least six housing blocks, and told them, “We don’t care if you get sick. We don’t care if you eat or don’t. It’s not my problem… isn’t going to change anything…” Multiple jail guards have told detained immigrants that the towns where they live have confirmed coronavirus infections.
Over 40 new detained immigrants have been brought into the facility each day this week. Their temperatures are screened but none are tested for the virus, even though CoreCivic, the owner and operator of the center, states that it has purchased COVID-19 testing kits. People calling Siembra NC reported that facility employees do not take basic precautions like using gloves or hand sanitizer when they enter or exit the facility. On Tuesday ICE officials reportedly asked the detained immigrants to ration one roll of toilet paper each for two weeks “because the stores nearby don’t have enough supplies.” Sixty-two detained immigrants share a single housing area, far too many to practice any form of social distancing.
The closest hospital to the Stewart Detention Center is over 20 miles away in Cuthbert, GA. Without immediate action being taken by the detention center, if and when one person obtains the virus, all 2,000 detained immigrants would likely be exposed.
Detained immigrants have a history of reporting lack of medical care by facility staff; one of the detained immigrants currently reports being unable to access his diabetes medication, and many say if they ask to see a doctor, they are not given an appointment until three days later. Some of the men, like Josué Barrientos, age 40, from Honduras, have underlying medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. While CoreCivic says that they have “developed a plan to separate high-risk individuals” Barrientos’s wife, Denisse, of Houston, Texas said, “My husband has a medical condition and he’s not told me that Stewart is making any accommodations to protect him given his vulnerable condition. I’m so worried about him right now.”
The detained immigrants, mostly from Mexico but also from Honduras, Cuba, Perú, and other countries, and whose families reside in North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas have refused to enter the cafeteria —where 200 of them are squeezed at mealtimes, and where they have recently had to eat from shared plates— since Monday, and have also refused to eat food for purchase at the commissary.
Mijente is a political, digital, and grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing and movement building. Launched in 2015, Mijente has a long history of grassroots organizing and is a nationally recognized leader in the immigrant rights movement.