When two attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) entered a privately-run immigration detention center recently, they were urged by guards not to drink from a water fountain. The guards didn't want the attorneys, both visibly pregnant, drinking what multiple detainees told the women and others was unsafe drinking water.
"They brought me bottled water," one of the attorneys, Eunice Cho, told me. "It was an eye-opener."
But the roughly 2,000 detainees at the Stewart Detention Facility in Lumpkin, Georgia aren't afforded such luxuries. They have no other choice but to drink water that is "discolored," and allegedly caused one man to have "diarrhea for weeks," according to a report authored by Cho and released Tuesday by SPLC.
The allegedly unsafe drinking water was just one of many revelations in the report, gleaned from more than 300 interviews with detainees at Stewart and five other immigration detention facilities across the south that were carried out by SPLC over the last six months. Cho and others spoke with detainees at Stewart who accused staff of using lockdowns and solitary confinement as punishment for hunger strikes that have been ongoing since last year at the facility.
In September 2015, detainees staging a hunger strike were shot with rubber bullets, according to the report.
"Stewart has probably been hit with the largest number of hunger strikes of any of these facilities," Cho told me. "The detainees told us, 'We're always being segregated [in solitary confinement], we're always on lockdown.'"
A spokesman for CoreCivic, the company that runs Stewart, said guards have never used rubber bullets on detainees and that the the drinking water there is safe. GEO Group, which runs the LaSalle Detention Facility in Jena, LA, responded to the allegations made by detainees that elderly and handicapped detainees were not given proper care by saying that the facility is "in compliance with the Federal government's national performance based standards as well as leading independent standards including those set by the American Correctional Association."
US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which pays companies for medical care at Stewart and LaSalle, said medical privacy laws prevented the agency from comment on the allegedly improper medical care given to three men and one woman in the facility who later died.
The woman, 33-year-old Chinese immigrant Xiu Zhen Li, would have lived if she was given more attentive care in LaSalle, her cellmate alleges in the SPLC report. "The doctors said she was lying," the woman, named only as Grace, is quoted as saying in SPLC's report. "She threw up every day."
Eventually, Zhen saw a doctor and was released and allowed to see her family, but soon passed away. Two men also detained at LaSalle—Saul Enrique Banegas-Guzman, 46, from Honduras, and Thongchay Saengsiri, 65, from Laos—died as a result of heart problems in January and March, respectively. Juan Luis Boch-Paniague, a 36-year-old Guatemalan immigrant died of liver failure in LaSalle in June.
They are among the 164 people who have died at detention centers between October 2003 and October of this year, according to ICE.
The deaths of those who were detained at LaSalle might have been prevented if more attentive medical care was given, according to the report, which cites many detainees as saying the most common solution to any ailment is ibuprofen.
That's a familiar complaint to Amy Fischer, an attorney with the non-profit Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services who helps immigrants at CoreCivic's Karnes City, Texas facility prepare for interviews in which they must convince DHS they have a "credible fear" of returning to their home country.
Ibuprofen and, unfortunately for those at Stewart, more water.
"Drink more water is a common refrain," Fischer told me of the detention system at large. "It seems like that is the magic remedy to any type of illness or injury."
The findings of SPLC's investigation may end up mirroring those of a review currently being conducted by a Department of Homeland Security committee. Following the lead of the Justice Department—which concluded in August it would end its use of private companies to run federal prisons after poor and unsafe conditions were discovered in those facilities—the DHS committee will release the findings of its review in late November.
If DHS recommends to shut down privately-run detention centers, it would be another blow for the private prison industry, which has seen its stocks spike after the election of Donald Trump, thanks in part to his pledge to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants. But even if that recommendation is made, it can be ignored by both the Obama and Trump administrations.
"Unfortunately we don't know how much impact any recommendation this committee would have on the incoming administration," Cho said. "We can only hope that any recommendation the committee makes is taken under serious consideration."
SPLC and pro-immigrant groups aren't the only ones concerned with conditions inside privately-run detention centers. Last Friday, a group of 15 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to DHS head Jeh Johnson demanding answers about conditions at the facilities as well as contracts between the companies that run them and ICE. (In September, a group of 12 Democratic senators sent Johnson a similar letter calling for the end of privately-run detention centers.)
"The real concern is that when immigrants are being held in these inhumane conditions, those are family members of people who live here in Brooklyn," said Patrick Rheaume, communications director for Yvette Clarke, the Democratic representative for New York's 9th District who signed Friday's letter.
Clarke, a daughter of Jamaican immigrants, signed the letter on behalf of the many sons and daughters of immigrants who live in her district in Brooklyn, according to Rheaume. In addition to concerns about privately-run detention centers, Clarke and others are worried that Trump will make good on his promise to detain and eventually deport millions—all of them at one point or another spending time in a privately-run detention center.
"What's going on right now is unacceptable," Rheaume told me, "and to think that it could get worse is very frightening."
Not only are private prison companies expected to see increased revenues under Trump, but a report released last week noted that they're being backed by significant loans from some of the country's largest banks.
The loans have helped the companies cover daily operating costs in the months since the Justice Department announced it would end contracting with companies to run federal prisons, causing stocks at CoreCivic, GEO and LaSalle to plummet. But Trump's win has temporarily solved that by helping stock prices to rise as much as 40 percent the day after the election.
Regardless of DHS's decision, immigrant advocates say the entire system needs to be rethought.
"The main solution lies not in reforming the detention system, but reframing our immigration system to stop detaining immigrants and asylum seekers," Fischer, the immigrant advocate in Texas, told me.
Companies have a "perverse incentive" to maximize profits at detention centers, Fischer said, a statement echoed by Cho, the author of the SPLC report. With Donald Trump in office, those profits could grow even larger.
DHS and President Obama have a chance to end, at least for now, the use of privately-run detention centers, according to Fischer. But time is running out.
"The Obama Administration has the power to make that fundamental shift happen now," she said. "Otherwise we'll see it only boom in a Trump Presidency."
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