Georgia prison tour verdict: Shut it down!

Ocilla, Ga. — The Irwin County Detention Center sits just outside the town of Ocilla, population 3,400, in southern Georgia. With 200 workers, it is the largest private employer in Irwin County.

Fields of cotton, peanuts and tobacco fill the countryside around Ocilla. Drought, unemployment and poverty plague its residents.

The one-story, sprawling ICDC building has a turbulent history of financial crisis. Built as a privately owned jail, in the 1990s it housed U.S. Marshall Service prisoners and then was a  boot camp for state juvenile offenders. For several years, it sat vacant until it was purchased by developer Terry O’Brien, of Municipal Corrections LLC, in 2004. Operations were turned over to Michael Croft, a former deputy sheriff, and the cells were filled with prisoners whose county lock-ups were full.

O’Brien and Croft had bigger ideas and convinced the local county commissioners in 2007 to raise $55 million in tax-exempt bonds to fund expansion of the facility, nearly doubling its capacity, to make it attractive as an immigration detention center. The complex agreement had the county leasing the jail from Municipal Corrections in order to use public money for remodeling costs.

Re-opened in January 2009 with 1,200 beds, it remained largely empty and by that summer was behind in bond payments as well as city and county taxes. Croft left town suddenly, and Detention Management LLC, another company affiliated with Terry O’Brien, took over day-to-day operations that summer.

O’Brien soothed worried local leaders with assurances that the leadership team at Detention Management had the connections to turn things around. And indeed, several of their names were well-known in the corrections industry — for bribery and pay-for-play schemes, personal use of tax money, and charges of prisoner abuse, illegal detention and more. (April 10, The Nation)

Nevertheless, Georgia’s two senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss and Rep. Jack Kingston went to bat for the Irwin County Detention Center with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. In 2010, a four-year contract was signed for the use of as many as 512 beds, at a cost of $45 a day, which is much less than the going rate at other for-profit prisons in Georgia.

Housing both male and female immigrant detainees as well as male and female federal prisoners of the U.S. Marshalls Service, the prison immediately had problems with everything from bad food, abusive guards, lack of medical care to restricted attorney access.

Since ICDC is located some three and a half hours from Atlanta, it is difficult, if not impossible, for many prisoners to receive family visits and legal support. Language translation skills among the staff and guards are meager to nonexistent. Untrained detainees are often pressed into translating fellow detainees’ medical or personal needs from Spanish to English. Translation of other languages, such as Vietnamese, Polish, Mayan dialects or Mandarin Chinese, have to be routed through a telephone service.

Civil and human rights violations

In January 2012, some detainees went on a hunger strike to bring attention to these problems. Their whole unit was put on lock-down. Others were sent to “the hole” or isolation cells.

A lot of these issues were detailed in a spring 2010 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia entitled “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia,” which cited direct testimony from named immigrants. The report ends with numerous recommendations to alleviate these inhumane conditions.

Added to the civil and human rights violations to be found in all prisons, jails and detention centers, the ICDC is also mired in financial instability that impacts operations.

In January 2012, with ICDC owing the county and city some $1.6 million in back taxes and with bondholders going unpaid, Ocilla moved to foreclose on the prison property and sell it at auction on the courthouse steps on March 6.

A bankruptcy action stopped that forced sale, and everything seems to be in the courts where the creditors are hashing out the details.

In the meanwhile, several hundred men and women are spending months, if not years in some cases, in a detention center far from family and friends. The cost of telephone calls is exorbitant and the service inadequate. Lawyers are denied contact visits, meaning their conversations are conducted over telephones that do not allow privacy.

Prisoners, both federal and immigrant detainees, complain of guards who constantly yell orders and of food that is rancid or inedible. Life-and-death issues include lack of timely and appropriate medical care for cancer patients and diabetics, detainees with broken limbs, and those suffering from depression and other mental health issues.

For these reasons and more, Irwin CountyDetention Center must be closed now.

On June 10, Mathiowetz and other immigrant rights activists toured the Irwin County Detention Center to see if any of the ACLU recommendations had been implemented.