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Deadly Detention

Deadly Detention: Hell in the Middle of a Pine Forest

Immigrant detainees represent more than $38 million a year for CoreCivic, a for-profit prison company that is the largest employer in one of Georgia’s poorest counties.

Robin Urevich

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Photo: Robin Urevich

Former ICE Guard: “They’re always putting them in the hole — in segregation. And they manhandle people.”


Deep in a Georgia pine forest, two hours south of Atlanta, early morning mist rises in wisps over the Stewart Detention Center, a facility run by CoreCivic, one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison companies. The bucolic scene clashes with the tall, barbed wire-topped chain-link fences surrounding the center, and the echoing shouts, crackling radios and slamming doors inside the walls. Technically, the roughly 1,700 men here aren’t prisoners, but civil detainees being held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they plead their cases to remain in the United States, or as the government prepares their deportations.

Also Read: “Self-Portrait of a Tragedy”

The detainees represent more than $38 million a year for CoreCivic — the government pays the company nearly $62 a day per man. It is the largest employer in Stewart County, one of Georgia’s poorest.

Immigrant rights groups have charged that the conditions here are not only indistinguishable from those in prison, they are downright abusive. In fact, a December 2017 Homeland Security Inspector General’s report expressed concerns about human rights abuses and, last month, Joseph Romero, a retired ICE officer who served as a guard, told Capital & Main that he resigned a supervisor job at Stewart in 2016 because he didn’t like the way people were treated.


Guatemalan Asylum Seeker: “It is hell in here. I wouldn’t even recommend it to a person I hate.”


“They’re always putting them in the hole — in segregation,” Romero said. “And they manhandle people. They think they can take care of their problems like that.” Romero noted that few officers speak Spanish, so there is little understanding or communication between guards and detainees.

JeanCarlo Jimenez Joseph’s suicide by hanging while in solitary confinement last May and 33-year-old Cuban national Yulio Castro Garrido’s death from pneumonia last December have brought these concerns to the fore.

Jimenez was mentally ill and had been in solitary for 19 days when he died — four days longer than the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture considers torture.


See Interactive Map of U.S. Detention Deaths


“It is hell in here. I wouldn’t even recommend it to a person I hate,” said Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a 23-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker who has been in detention — at Stewart, the Atlanta Detention Center and at the Irwin Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia — since 2015.

In addition to many other abuses that he alleges — rotten food, forced work and abuse by guards — Hill has also served 60 days in isolation. He said it was retaliation for a grievance he’d filed. He was placed in solitary, ostensibly because he’d been exposed to chickenpox; however, other detainees who, like Hill, reported they’d had the disease as children were released.


CoreCivic documents show that detainees were in isolation for such offenses as “horse playing.”


ICE detention standards specify that isolation is to be used only to punish the three most serious categories of rule violations, and only “when alternative dispositions may inadequately regulate the detainee’s behavior.”

But CoreCivic documents released after Jimenez’s suicide show that on the day that he died, detainees were in isolation for such offenses as “horse playing,” “refusal to obey staff” or “conduct that disrupts.” Four men had been in solitary for more than 60 days. One of them, Sylvester Smith, who was deported to Sierra Leone at the end of 2017, served at least four months in isolation. His charges were variously listed as “being found guilty of a combination of th…” (the word is cut off on CoreCivic’s restricted housing roster) and “failure to obey.”

After Jimenez died, however, then-warden Bill Spivey held weekly meetings aimed at reducing the number of people in solitary. By October 2017, documents show, there were just 10 people in isolation, but when Spivey retired and an assistant warden took over, the census more than doubled. CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns didn’t respond to emailed questions about the current number of men in segregation.

Joseph Romero, the former ICE officer who worked at Stewart, is tall and graying with a full mustache and beard. He is proud of his ICE career but thinks the for-profit detention model the government has adopted has to go.

“They should go back and have these detention centers run by Immigration, not by private contractors,” Romero said. ICE officers treat people better, because they value their careers, Romero said. “You’re making a lot more money, you have retirement and better benefits. After 20 years, you can retire. At CCA [now known as CoreCivic], you have nothing.”


A detainee says guards call detainees “wetbacks” and “dogs,” and have greeted each other with Nazi salutes.


What’s more, Romero said, Stewart was understaffed: It wasn’t uncommon for officers to work double shifts and return to work eight hours later. “That’s why they’re so irritated,” he said. Equipment was also substandard, Romero claimed. He describes gun holsters that lack the safety snap that prevents a gun from being snatched by a thief or would-be attacker.

Romero said he wanted to try to change conditions for the better at Stewart, but found resistance from a tight, insular group that ran the place, and realized he could do little. Then he witnessed an incident that convinced him it was time to leave.

He saw two guards walking a handcuffed detainee to segregation. One of them “got in the guy’s face,” Romero recalled, and the detainee head-butted the guard. “The next thing you know the guard starting punching on the guy,” Romero said. He later watched a video of the beating with his co-workers, and Romero was taken aback by their reaction. “They said he asked for it, and I’m like wait a sec… If you’re in handcuffs why would I hit you? I have total control of you.”

The guard who threw the punch got fired, and a training session followed. But Romero doesn’t know if it had any effect because he left shortly thereafter.

Hill Barrientos said from his vantage point as a detainee, Stewart is worse than it was in 2016 when Romero was there. He believes Trump’s election signaled to detention officers that they could disrespect detainees with impunity.

Guards call detainees “wetbacks” and “dogs,” Hill Barrientos charged. He said that he’s even seen white detention officers greet each other with a Nazi salute. Health care is hard for detainees to obtain, Hill Barrientos said. He worked in the kitchen with Castro Garrido, who, he said, grew increasingly sicker because he was required to work instead of being allowed time to seek medical attention. ICE initially reported in its news release about Castro’s death that he had refused medical attention, an account that was widely reported. But the agency later corrected its news release to say that Castro’s case “was resistant to some forms of medical intervention.”

Hill’s lawyer, Glenn Fogle, thinks poor detention conditions are part of the government’s aggressive deportation strategy. “That’s the whole idea — to hold people in those horrible places to make them give up,” Fogle said.

Hill said he cannot give up — he would be killed by gang members who had threatened and extorted him if he is returned to Guatemala. His case is virtually identical to that of his two brothers and a sister, all of whom have already been granted asylum, Fogle said. Still, his case has been denied. Judges at Stewart grant asylum in few cases, so Hill Barrientos now pins his hopes on the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, which is currently considering his case.

“The people that give me strength are my mother and my daughter,” Hill Barrientos said. “So I keep fighting.”


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