ACLU Calls for Investigation, Closure of Georgia Immigrant Detention Centers

March 26, 2014

R. Robin McDonald, Daily Report

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia has sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation asking them to investigate two federal immigration detention centers in Georgia.

The ACLU based its request in the March 21 letter on a 2012 report it prepared on immigration detention in Georgia. The report documented the plight of what the ACLU says are thousands of individuals detained in U.S. immigration and customs enforcement detention facilities whose civil rights have been violated while incarcerated at two privately-run, for-profit centers in Irwin and Stewart counties.

The Dream Will Never Die - Strategies to End the New Jim Crow

March 24, 2014

The primary mission of this Conference is to continue the building of a broad based Coalition that will develop strategies collectively on the approaches necessary to END the New Jim Crow in Georgia & the United States. Becoming increasingly organized locally will contribute more to the growing national movement to STOP MASS INCARCERATION.

The ACLU of Georgia seeking a Congressional investigation of two of the worst immigration detention facilities in the country

March 22, 2014

The ACLU of Georgia has been joined by dozens of other local and national groups in seeking a Congressional investigation of two of the worst immigration detention facilities in the country, Stewart and the Irwin County Detention Center. This request comes in the face of inaction of ICE to recommendations in our May 2012 report, “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia.” You can find the letter to the Georgia Congressional delegation here.

ACLU of Georgia sends letters to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights experts requesting a meeting to discuss immigration detention conditions in Georgia

December 20, 2013

In light of the inaction of the federal government and for-profit prison corporations in the face of documented human rights violations, the ACLU of Georgia sent letters to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Rapporteur on the Rights of People Deprived of Liberty and the Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants, requesting a meeting to discuss immigration detention conditions in Georgia.

You can find the letters here and here.

ACLU Asks Sheriffs to Address Removal of Religious Headwear

June 21, 2013

Michelle Wirth

The American Civil Liberties Union is sending letters to sheriff departments across Georgia to ask them to address the practice of requiring detained individuals to remove religious headwear. The organization says it’s making the request after learning about several people who were in custody in Georgia jails that were forced to remove their religious attire.

The ACLU says it’s aware of three incidents where those detained in Georgia jails were asked to remove their religious headwear. Azadeh Shahshahani Directs the National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project for the ACLU of Georgia. She says unless the government can show the restriction is absolutely necessary and is for a very important purpose, the headwear’s removal violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

“The purpose of the letter is just to ensure the sheriffs are aware of what the law is and to ensure individuals’ rights to religious liberty are being respected going forward.”

ACLU of Georgia Sends Letters to Sheriffs to Ask that they Respect Religious Liberty of Detained Individuals

June 20, 2013

The ACLU of Georgia has sent letters and public records requests to sheriffs across the state to address the practice of requiring detained individuals to remove religious headwear. This practice was brought to our attention when several detained individuals of faith were forced to remove their religious headgear at various Georgia jails, despite assertions of religious obligations. We have advised the sheriffs that unless the government can demonstrate that this requirement is “the least restrictive means” of furthering “a compelling governmental interest,” the practice of forcing detained individuals to remove religious attire violates individuals’ rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) as well as other legal authorities. In addition to asking the sheriffs to produce pertinent policies and any complaints they had received, we urged them to review their policies and guidelines to ensure they are consistent with RLUIPA and other legal requirements. To view a copy of the letter click here.

Time to Bring Moms Home: Impact of Immigration Detention on Women

May 23, 2013

Time to Bring Moms Home: Impact of Immigration Detention on Women

The Huffington Post
Azadeh Shahshahani
National Security/Immigrants Rights Project Director

Earlier this month, we celebrated Mother's Day while thousands of immigrant women across the country were separated from their children and families. They were imprisoned in the more than 250 facilities nationwide including the two in Georgia which currently detain women.

Women in immigration detention facilities including the Irwin County Detention Center and the North Georgia Detention Center face particularly painful circumstances as the ACLU of Georgia documented in our report released last year, "Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia."

Victims of Abuse

Women often end up in detention because they were victims of abuse. More than half of the women we interviewed had been victims of domestic violence. Veronica and Maria Francisco, two women detained at the North Georgia Detention Center, said they had never called the police when they were being beaten by their partners because they were afraid of being arrested and deported, which would hurt not only them but their children as well. Maria's husband actually threatened to call ICE and have her deported if she complained about the beatings. She believed him and never called for help. Her worst fears came true when she was finally arrested after police arrived at her home in response to a domestic violence call.

Separation From Families and Children

Many of the women we interviewed were worried for their children because they were no longer with any immediate relatives or living at their own homes. Dulce Bolanos Estrada, who fled to Georgia from New Orleans to escape an abusive husband, has never been convicted of a crime. When she was detained, her young children (ages two, five, and seven), all U.S. citizens, were staying with relatives because she was their only caregiver. Her detention, she said, had torn apart the home she kept together.

Clara, who had already received her final removal order, was terrified that her children, U.S. citizens, would be sent to their abusive father or put in state custody because she was told she would be deported regardless of the dates of her pending custody case. Because she could not afford an attorney, she had many questions about the future well-being and rights of her children, and she had no idea to whom she could turn.

Maria Francisco has four U.S. citizen children; two of them are still too young to attend school. They had been living with a relative since Maria's detainment. She did not know what she would do if she were deported. She wanted her children in good schools because as Americans, they deserved to attend American schools. She had not seen her children at all in the two months she had been detained.

Veronica's children, all three of whom are U.S. citizens, were back in Mexico because she had no family or friends who could provide a safe place for her children to live in the U.S. At the time we spoke with her, Veronica had been detained for almost four months, and the extent of her record was a ticket for driving without insurance or a license.

Medical Needs

Women face particular obstacles pertaining to their reproductive health in detention. When Natalia Elzaurdia was detained at the North Georgia Detention Center in May 2011, she and her fiancé were expecting their first child. At intake, Natalia told the nurse at the medical unit that she was four months pregnant. The nurse then conducted a urine test, and told Natalia that she was not pregnant. Natalia asked her to call the Gwinnett County Detention Center where she had previously taken two pregnancy tests. The nurse refused to call and conducted a chest xray against Natalia's protestations. Natalia asked for a blood test instead. The next day a blood test confirmed she was pregnant.

Natalia had requested to see a gynecologist as soon as she entered NGDC. At the time of the interview, days after she put in her request, she had yet to see a gynecologist. "I put in requests to two nurses and my deportation officer and still my concerns have not been addressed. I experience cramps in my abdomen daily. I want an ultrasound; I haven't been given one yet and I'm four months pregnant." Although she requested to see a doctor, Natalia only saw nurses. Natalia's family wrote to the warden and other NGDC officials, as well as DHS regarding Natalia's treatment, but never received a response.


Women often face inadequate hygiene conditions in detention, jeopardizing their health. At Irwin, the underwear women receive upon arrival is often used, even showing stains or signs that it is not properly washed. Veronica was issued soiled undergarments at intake and she asked if she could have clean ones. She was refused and told to wear what she was given. As a result of wearing the soiled undergarments, Veronica developed a serious infection that ultimately left scars on her legs and genitals.

In the spring of 2011, a rash broke out among the women in one unit at Irwin, and most of them had painful bumps on their chests. In July 2011, another women's unit had a similar rash outbreak, and one woman had the rash spread across her back and side. None of the women interviewed ever found out why these outbreaks occurred, or what exactly they had contracted.

Daniela Esquivela told us that women detained at the North Georgia Detention Center are given a pack of sanitary napkins for when they are menstruating, but that they must ask for more once they run out. The guards only give out three or four at a time, and if the women need more, they have to keep going back to ask for more. Geraldine Ayala also added that they sometimes have to wait to get more sanitary napkins because "they run out."


The quality and quantity of the food in detention is often lacking, especially affecting pregnant women. The schedule of the meals at the North Georgia Detention Center posed particular concern for Natalia in light of her pregnancy. Natalia stated that "the feeding times are ridiculous; there are thirteen hours between dinner and breakfast." Although Natalia was eventually given increased portions due to her pregnancy, she was not given meals more frequently. In addition, it took two or three days once her request was approved for the portions to increase.

Need for Reform

It is past time to close down the worst immigration detention centers in the country and treat detention as the last resort rather than throw immigrants in jail-like conditions -- including individuals who have been here for years, those who have only committed minor violations, those who have U.S. citizens and relatives as spouses or children, and those who have strong claims to remain in the United States.

The immigration reform bill introduced recently in the Senate contains important detention reforms, such as prompt bond hearings, alternatives to detention in immigration jails, and oversight of detention facilities. The bill also recognizes the importance of appointed counsel for those with mental disabilities, unaccompanied children, and other vulnerable populations.

We must continue to fight every step of the way to ensure immigration reform achieves a roadmap to citizenship for immigrants and an immigration process that respects the civil rights and liberties of immigrants, including women in deportation proceedings. With the hope that next Mother's Day, all detained immigrant mothers will be reunited with their families.

Liberty Forsaken: Women in Incarceration

March 18, 2013

On occasion of the International Women's Day

Georgia Detention Watch presents

Liberty Forsaken: Women in Incarceration

a panel discussion featuring special guest Jessica Colotl

Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 12:00 pm

4200 Perimeter Park South, Suite #205
Atlanta, GA 30341

co-host: ACLU of Georgia

Click here to RSVP

The Reality of Life Inside Immigration Detention

November 21, 2012

By Azadeh N. Shahshahani, ACLU Foundation of Georgia at 5:18pm
In the last 15 years, we've witnessed a dramatic expansion in the jailing of immigrants, from about 70,000 people detained annually to about 400,000. In the mid-1990’s, during the height of an anti-immigrant backlash, Congress passed a series of harsh measures that led to a vast increase in unnecessary detention. This trend has been exacerbated by the private prison industry and county jails looking to exploit immigrant detention for profit.

The cost of this system today is 1.7 billion dollars at taxpayer expense.

In detention, immigrants continue to be subject to punitive treatment, and are denied basic needs, such as contact with lawyers and loved ones, inadequate food and hygiene, and access to fresh air and sunlight. They continue to get injured, sick, and die without timely medical care. They continue to endure racial slurs and discriminatory treatment by prison staff, and are vulnerable to rape and assault. Since 2003, a reported 131 people have died in immigration custody.

These conditions are unacceptable and not in the spirit of the Administration’s promised reforms.

The Stewart Detention Center in Georgia in many ways exemplifies the problems with using remote, highly restrictive facilities to hold immigrants.

At Stewart, the medical and mental health care unit is understaffed, resulting in lack of adequately licensed health care professionals, delays in receiving care, and inadequate mental health care services. From April 2009 to the summer of 2012, there was no doctor at Stewart, which means the facility was without a physician for more than three years. Currently there is only one doctor and only seven nurses on staff at the 1,752-bed facility, which is a ratio of 1 nurse per 250 prisoners. As the ACLU of Georgia documented in our May 2012 report, “Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia,” immigrants reported that it can take days or even weeks for medical requests to be answered. In addition, individuals with mental disabilities are routinely placed in solitary confinement leading to further deterioration of their mental health.

One such individual is Ermis Calderon, a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder and frequent panic attacks. Before his detention at Stewart, Ermis had struggled with addiction issues and depression. Both had been effectively treated through counseling, medication, and support programmes. All that ended when he arrived at Stewart. Less than a week after his detention at Stewart, without a support system, a therapist, or his regularly prescribed medication, Ermis suffered a panic attack. While waiting for an appointment to re-visit his medication levels, Ermis sensed a panic attack coming. "I just wanted to take my clothes off so I could breathe, so I asked the guard if I could be taken back to my cell," he said. The guard refused.

As he felt his heart begin to race and his vision blur, Ermis asked if he could at least go to the restroom. Again he was denied. An attack set in. He began hitting himself in the head and striking his head against the wall. Having observed this, four guards threw him to floor, cuffed him, and held him to ground until he was still. Although no violence or threats of violence occurred during the episode, Ermis was placed in segregation and kept in segregation for almost the entire time he was detained, which was over six months. When the ACLU of Georgia spoke with Ermis in September 2011, his knuckles were bruised from punching the wall of his cell. His arms and wrists were still raw and scabbed from a recent suicide attempt.

"I feel like I'm going crazy. My medicine is always changing, and it makes me crazy. When I get upset, they just give me more medicine. I can't tell them I'm really upset or they just put me in a helmet and handcuffs for a few days. That's torture! I don't see anybody. I don't really care about anything. I just want to get out and get into a program that will help me."

Growing outrage in the community led to Friday’s vigil and march in Lumpkin, Georgia calling for the closing of the Stewart Detention Center. As part of a national campaign to expose and close the 10 worst facilities in the country, more than 200 community leaders and advocates gathered for a vigil at Lumpkin town square and then marched to the Stewart Detention Center. Among our speakers were individuals formerly detained at the Stewart Detention Center, such as Pedro Guzman, as well as family members of currently detained immigrants.

"After twenty months away from home, you lose faith, you feel worthless, this place breaks you, it is made to break your soul. The constant screaming and verbal abuse the guards inflict on the detainees is just made to break your soul and handicap you," said Pedro Guzman.

Stewart is not the exception, but the rule, in immigration detention today. It is unacceptable to be spending billions in taxpayer dollars every year to contract with corporations and counties that perpetrate human rights abuses against this vulnerable population at a time of fiscal crisis.

Rep. Jared Polis Joins Detention Watch Network to Launch New Campaign to “Expose and Close” Widespread Abuse at Detention Centers across the Country

November 15, 2012

New Reports Shed Light on 10 of the Worst Detention Centers in the Country; National and Local Leaders Tell President Obama “Enough is Enough!”

Washington, DC–The immigration detention system in the United States has grown drastically over the last 15 years and the appalling conditions in the detention centers that house immigrants have reached a tipping point. Today, national and local leaders responded by saying, “enough is enough!”

On a press call today, Rep. Jared Polis (CO-02) and Bishop Minerva Carcaño joined national and local leaders from the Detention Watch Network to release a series of reports titled, “Expose and Close,” to reveal the widespread pattern of mistreatment at ten of the worst immigrant prisons across the country. Today, speakers called on President Obama to do what’s right and close these detention centers as well as issued a list of reforms to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of immigrants held in detention.

According toAndrea Black,Executive Director, Detention Watch Network, “We hope that the Administration will act. ICE claims it has taken steps to reform the detention system, but the people actually in detention are suffering as much as ever. In his second term, the president has the power to bring about change that will uplift immigrants instead of lock them up.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Roberto Medina-Martinez, a 39-year-old immigrant, died at Stewart in March 2009 of a treatable heart infection. An investigation conducted following his death revealed that the nursing staff failed to refer Mr. Medina for timely medical treatment and the facility physician failed to follow internal oversight procedures.
  • A man with serious emotional health problems in the Houston Processing Center in Texas was placed in solitary confinement for months at a time, a practice which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has deemed torture.
  • At Baker, Etowah and Pinal County Detention Centers and Jails, families are only able to visit with their loved ones in detention through video monitors after having driven hundreds of miles to see them.
  • At the Pinal County Jail complaints regarding sanitation include receiving food on dirty trays, worms found in food, bugs and worms found in the faucets, receiving dirty laundry, and being overcrowded with ten other men in one cell and only one toilet.

President Obama made promises to reform this inhumane system in 2009, and while there were some efforts to improve the system, the reality on the ground has not changed. Pedro Guzman, formerly detained at the Stewart Detention Center, shared his firsthand experience: “We were treated like animals-- held in pod with 64 people, no privacy, eating food that was inedible and constant yelling and disrespect from the officers. We rarely had court dates even after they were already scheduled, and they made it impossible to adjust your status in a legal and efficient way. There is absolutely no justice in the detention system.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (CO-02)also joined today’s call for justice: “It needn’t take the passage of comprehensive immigration reform for us to work together to reform the immigration detention system and close the most egregious centers highlighted in these reports. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to continue to support this waste of money and resources.”

Conditions at 10 of the worst jails and prisons that house immigrants have gotten so bad, the only option is to begin shutting them down. Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia and President of National Lawyers Guild, said, “The human rights abuses at the Irwin County Detention Center and the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia in many ways exemplify the problems with using remote, highly restrictive facilities to hold immigrants.

These conditions are unacceptable and not in the spirit of the Administration’s promised reforms."

“While immigrants suffer under prolonged detention at Polk County and the Houston Processing Center, private prison corporations are getting rich,” saidBob Libal, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership. “It doesn’t have to be this way. ICE should prioritize release of immigrants in community support programs that are far more humane, less costly, and are effective at ensuring immigrants are able to appear at their hearings.”

SaidBishop Minerva G. Carcaño,Resident Bishop of the Los Angeles Area of the United Methodist Church, “The detention of hundreds of thousands of immigrants in this country for profit and political gain is a moral outrage. Detention centers are not the answer to our broken immigration policies.”

In conjunction with today’s national launch, Detention Watch Network members around the country will be releasing their local reports in a coordinated effort to call for closure of these ten jails and prisons across the nation that exemplify some of the most appalling conditions of immigrant detention. These facilities include Etowah County Detention Center (AL), Pinal County Jail (AZ), Houston Processing Center (TX), Polk County Detention Facility (TX), Stewart Detention Center (GA), Irwin County Jail (GA), Hudson County Jail (NJ), Theo Lacy Detention Center (CA), Tri-County Detention Center (IL), and Baker County Jail (FL).