As Coronavirus Spreads Worldwide, Advocates Call For Release Of Detainees At Ga. Immigration Center

Stewart Detention Center, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in southwest Georgia, is one of the country’s largest, holding about 2,000 people.

DAvid Goldman / Associated PRess file

Immigrant-rights advocates warn of an impending coronavirus outbreak inside the Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility is one of the country’s largest, holding about 2,000 people. It’s just one hour from Dougherty County, which has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

Kevin Caron with Georgia Detention Watch was able to tour the Stewart Detention Center facility a few years ago. He said many of the detainees live in open floor pods with about 60 people on rows of bunk beds bolted to the floor.

“There’s really no room for you to get a safe distance from anybody who might be sick,” Caron said.

He and advocates with the Atlanta-based Project South and a North Carolina group called Siembra NC said in a press conference Thursday that ICE is not protecting the detainees from the COVID-19 virus and they should be released.

ICE did not respond to the call for the release of the detainees beyond sharing a webpage detailing the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The agency has not confirmed any cases of the COVID-19 virus at the center yet. In response to the virus, ICE has stopped allowing friends or family to visit detainees at Stewart.

Advocates said it’s difficult to get much information from detainees about conditions because they are unable to make incoming calls. What they have learned is mostly from friends and family members.

During the press conference, Ana Maria Reichenbach spoke about her friend who is a detainee at Stewart. He told her on Tuesday that detainees in his unit were going on a hunger strike.

“They were talking about, we either die of this virus or we die of hunger,” Reichenbach said.

Advocacy groups said they’ve heard reports of protests in other units at Stewart but it’s unclear if any are ongoing.

ICE denies that any hunger strikes have taken place and said in a statement that people sharing misinformation are “needlessly spreading fear.”

Stewart Detention Center has faced multiple lawsuits over conditions inside. Four people have died there since 2017 with two being suicides. The facility is privately run by the contractor CoreCivic.