Stewart detention center uprising resists U.S. immigration system’s brutality

Lumpkin, Ga. — On Sept. 3 at about 10:30 p.m., Corrections Corporation of America management deployed their Special Operations Response Team to brutally suppress hunger strikes, work stoppages and other forms of resistance organized by undocumented people who are currently detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.

From face-to-face interviews with detained individuals and second-hand accounts from their attorneys and family members, supporters learned that Stewart staff entered several units wearing riot gear and attacked immigrants with rubber bullets and pepper spray. At least one individual required serious medical attention due to the harsh response and excessive use of force.  

November 2014 march to detention center in Lumpkin, Ga.

November 2014 march to detention center in Lumpkin, Ga.

Staff then placed the entire facility, one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the country with over 1,800 beds, on lockdown. They denied those detained all visits, phone calls, outdoor recreation and television for almost three full days.  

Reports confirmed that throughout the duration of the lockdown, which took place over Labor Day weekend, individuals were required to stay in their pods and on their beds, except when they were allowed to use the restroom or were taken by guards, one at a time, to the showers.

In addition, meal schedules and other services were altered, requiring many to go long periods without food. Others were forced to endure painful medical conditions without proper treatment.  

Families had hoped to take advantage of the long weekend to visit their loved ones at Stewart, some even driving as far as 900 miles. All were turned away with little or no explanation until Sunday, Sept. 6, when staff ended the lockdown.

Built as a speculative project in the early 2000s, the medium-security facility that would later become Stewart sat empty for several years. Meanwhile, CCA scrambled to obtain a contract with the state of Georgia. Despite pouring tens of thousands of dollars into Georgia state officials’ election campaigns, CCA failed to make a deal.

The corporation was losing money until, in 2006, CCA secured a contract with the federal government and Stewart County to warehouse undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  

Almost immediately upon opening, the horrid conditions at Stewart were met with resistance. In 2007, Honduran immigrants at the facility organized a large hunger strike that garnered the attention of local activists and advocates, such as Anton Flores-Maisonet. Inspired by those resisting Stewart from the inside, Flores-Maisonet and others built a grassroots movement to shut down the facility by organizing regular demonstrations and setting up El Refugio, a hospitality house that offers assistance to the families of those who are detained.  

In 2012, Detention Watch Network named Stewart Detention Center one of the 10 worst immigration detention centers in the United States. Recent reports from Georgia Detention Watch and DWN detail human rights violations at Stewart. These violations include rotten, undercooked food that has been served with maggots as well as indefinite detention with multiple complaints, including a slow and nontransparent deportation process. They also include severe medical neglect, which, in March 2009, proved fatal when Roberto Medina-Martinez died of a treatable heart infection.  

These clear and consistent violations of basic human rights have left those detained at Stewart with no option but to mount resistance.  The most recent uprising comes on the heels of a large hunger strike that took place in Stewart throughout the summer of 2014.

Today, CCA is the largest private, for-profit corrections company in the United States. In 2012, CCA’s revenue, which comes entirely from taxpayer funds, exceeded $1.7 billion. Earning $60.50 per day per individual detained at Stewart, the longer CCA can keep someone in detention, the more they profit.  

While the U.S. corporate media has focused on the immigration and refugee crisis in Europe throughout recent weeks, refugees fleeing U.S.-backed military repression and economic exploitation in Latin America have been left out of the discussion. The Stewart Uprising of 2015 should serve as a reminder that the root causes of the immigration crisis in the U.S. and elsewhere are policies that exploit the labor and resources of some parts of the world to benefit the wealthy in others.

Kevin Caron is an activist with Georgia Detention Watch and the movement to #ShutDownStewart. He lives in Atlanta.