ATLANTA--An immigration detention center in South Georgia has struggled with serious safety problems undermining the "humane treatment" of its detainees, according to a stinging new report by the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Office of Inspector General.
At Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, some detainees with high-risk criminal convictions have been misclassified and housed with low-risk detainees. Stewart's staff, the inspectors found, admitted they made such decisions without receiving detainees' criminal history records.
Further, detainees have been held in solitary confinement at Stewart for "extended periods of time without documented, periodic reviews that are required to justify continued segregation." Documentation of daily medical visits and meal records for those kept in isolation were missing or incomplete.
Released this week, the investigators' report was prompted by concerns raised by immigrant rights groups and complaints received on a federal hotline. Inspectors made unannounced visits to detention centers in Georgia, California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas, finding problems at four of them, including Stewart.
"Overall, we identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment," the report concludes.
The findings come after a Stewart detainee hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell in May. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the authorities at Stewart failed to check on Jean Jimenez-Joseph as often as they are required before the 27-year-old Panamanian national killed himself. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is seeking more detention space to hold people facing deportation as it ramps up immigration enforcement across the nation.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement Friday saying it concurred with the report's recommendation to "further enhance compliance monitoring as part of our already robust inspections program."
"Based on multilayered, rigorous inspections and oversight programs, ICE is confident in conditions and high standards of care at its detention facilities," ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said. "To ensure the safety and well-being of those in our custody, we work regularly with contracted consultants and a variety of external stakeholders to review and improve detention conditions at ICE facilities."
CoreCivic, a Nashville, Tenn.-based corrections company that manages Stewart through agreements with ICE and Stewart County, said the government closely monitors the facilities it operates.
"CoreCivic cares deeply about every person entrusted to our care. That's why at our detention facilities detainees have access to services such as medical vaccinations, legal assistance and even educational opportunities," CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns said in a prepared statement, adding: "We believe the issues identified at Stewart Detention Center can be quickly and effectively remedied."
The investigators found these other problems at Stewart:
--There were not enough male personnel to pat down detainees as required, so the staff turned to other methods, including using a magnetometer wand. But that isn't sufficient to identify nonmetallic contraband that could pose security risks, such as drugs.
--Detainees reported long waits for medical care.
--The grievance resolution process at Stewart is "inconsistent and insufficiently documented." Responses to many serious complaints included only "cursory and uninformative explanations of resolutions."
--When the inspectors called their federal hotline from Stewart they received a message saying that number was "restricted."
--Detainees reported the detention center staff sometimes interrupted or delayed Muslim prayer times.
--Bathrooms were in poor condition. Investigators found mold and peeling paint on the walls, floors and showers. Some bathrooms had no hot water, and some showers lacked cold water. Detainees also complained that toilet paper, shampoo, soap, lotion and toothpaste were not provided promptly or at all.
The inspectors' findings show "now is not the time to expand a detention system that ICE is not capable of effectively and safely running," said Katharina Obser, a senior program officer with the Women's Refugee Commission, a New York City-based refugee advocacy group.
"Detention," Obser said, "must be reduced and, where needed, humane alternatives to detention implemented in its place."
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