News Release

May 11, 2021

Contact: Amilcar Valencia

Detained immigrants describe conditions at Stewart Detention Center during pandemic

Covid-19 exacerbated inhumane treatment, and immigrants feared for their lives 

Lumpkin, Ga. — Immigrants detained at Stewart Detention Center (SDC) during the Covid-19 pandemic were confined in overcrowded units, denied personal protective equipment, and risked being thrown into solitary confinement if they reported feeling sick.

People called the El Refugio hotline, as well as a national hotline operated by Freedom for Immigrants, expressing fear that they would not make it out of SDC alive. Their experiences, along with letters to El Refugio and responses to a survey El Refugio distributed at SDC, are compiled in a report, Cage of Fear: Medical Neglect and Abuse in Stewart Detention Center During the Covid-19 Pandemic. [link to report]

“When I had Covid-19 symptoms, they never gave me a Covid-19 test, and the care was very bad,” a detained person wrote in the survey. “We don’t matter to [the staff] … I felt like I would die, and I was sent to a bunk for 20 days with 30 other sick people. I fainted in the bathroom because I vomited so much and my compañeros told the manager, who didn’t do anything. She didn’t care and said that she wasn’t a doctor.”

In survey responses, letters, and hotline calls, people described the use of solitary confinement as medical isolation for suspected and positive cases of Covid-19, a violation of ICE’s own policy.

“They never told me that I had Covid-19,” a survey respondent wrote. “I was in the kitchen talking and they came to find me … with two others, they sent me to ‘the hole’ and put me in a punishment cell. This was because another compañero died from Covid-19.”

Four people have died of Covid-19 complications while in ICE custody at Stewart Detention Center, more than any detention center in the country. People at SDC with medical conditions have formally asked ICE to release them due to the threat of Covid-19, and most of their requests have been denied or ignored.

Human rights organizations and immigrants who have been detained have for years decried the conditions at Stewart Detention Center and other privately run detention centers around the country. El Refugio’s research found that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated already deplorable conditions inside SDC, creating an environment of intense fear and anxiety among detained people.

In addition to the use of solitary confinement as medical and disciplinary segregation, people inside SDC, which is owned and operated by the private prison company CoreCivic, described quarantining people with serious symptoms in crowded units along with asymptomatic people; delayed and denied access to medical attention; inconsistent access to masks, soap, and hand sanitizer; sporadic testing; and retaliation against people who protested medical neglect.

“Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CoreCivic, and SDC have proven time and time again that they cannot and will not take care of the people they detain,” said Amilcar Valencia, Executive Director of El Refugio. “ICE must release everyone at SDC and shut it down. There is no other acceptable course of action.”

In March, El Refugio, in partnership with Freedom for Immigrants and Project South, filed on behalf of 70 people currently and formerly detained at SDC a complaint with the Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties and the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security.

Also in March, El Refugio, in partnership with Siembra NC , successfully advocated for the release of a person with serious health complications. His story is included in the new report.

El Refugio, Freedom for Immigrants, Detention Watch Network, Project South, Siembra NC, and other partners across the Southeast and the nation will continue to respond to the cries from people inside SDC and their loved ones until everyone is released and SDC is shut down.

From a letter El Refugio received in May, 2020: “I need to be with my family as soon as possible. I don’t want to die in here.”

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El Refugio provides hospitality, visitation, and support to people at Stewart Detention Center and their loved ones.