In this Nov. 15, 2019, file photo, an attorney is shown outside the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. According to public records obtained by WABE News, there have been 12 instances where the Georgia Department of Public Health investigated COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s four detention centers since at least April 2020.
As U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they took measures to protect immigrants in custody from COVID-19, the Georgia Department of Public Health continues to investigate outbreaks at ICE facilities in the state since the beginning of the pandemic.
According to public records obtained by WABE News, since at least April 2020, there have been 12 instances where Georgia DPH investigated COVID-19 outbreaks in the state’s four detention centers.
That includes three investigations at the Irwin County Detention Center, four combined at the Folkston ICE Processing Center and Folkston Annex, four at the Robert A. Deyton Detention Facility and one ongoing investigation at the Stewart Detention Center.
The majority of DPH investigations are now closed. Three of the 12 investigations are ongoing as of June 24, including at Stewart.
“What basically it is to me is a systemic issue in all detention centers, especially at Stewart,” says Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio.
The advocacy group helps people released from Stewart with social services.
According to ICE data, at the time of this report, there have been nearly 1,200 cases of COVID-19 in Georgia facilities since the beginning of the pandemic.
More than 60% of those cases were at Stewart.
“The lack of medical care [at Stewart] is an ongoing issue,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South.
This week Shahshahani testified at a hearing by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about immigrant detention centers in the U.S.
Both Valencia and Shahshahani have long sounded the alarm about health issues at Stewart and say those issues only got worse during COVID-19.
Last year, the House Homeland Security Committee released a report that said ICE facilities have failed to meet basic standards of care, including lack of protection for COVID-19.
Though the number of people in ICE custody has dropped sharply since the Trump administration, the number has climbed in recent months. Nearly 27,000 people are currently detained across the country. As of late June, there are more than 800 current cases of COVID-19 in ICE detention centers.
In a statement, an ICE official acknowledged that there has been a recent rise in COVID-19 cases.
“Some ICE facilities have seen an increase in the number of noncitizens being transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody from border facilities, resulting in a rise in COVID-19 cases,” said an ICE spokesperson.
Throughout the pandemic, ICE has maintained that it takes precautions to keep people safe.
Those measures include keeping detention centers at 70% capacity or less, staggering meal times and suspending visitation. ICE has also released more than 900 people as of last May.
ICE did not respond to a comment on an updated number of those released.
However, advocates say precautions by the federal agency to protect people haven’t worked.
According to ICE data, nine people have died in custody due to COVID-19. Four of those people were detained at Stewart, the most deaths out of any ICE facility in the country.
El Refugio released a report in May that claimed people detained at Stewart did not receive enough personal protective equipment (PPE), were not regularly tested and that medical treatment for COVID-19 was often delayed.
The report is based on more than 400 calls to its hotline as well as letters written by those detained.
In May, the Biden-Harris administration ordered the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia to shut down. The facility is under federal investigation for complaints about the treatment of immigrants in its custody.
Last year, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of dozens of women who claimed medical abuse while detained at Irwin. Earlier that year, Dawn Wooten, a whistleblower nurse, claimed that women at the facility were subjected to medical procedures without their consent.
The nurse also said there was a lack of COVID-19 testing at the facility.
No timeline has been set as to when the facility will close. Irwin is also one of the three facilities that DPH is currently investigating for COVID-19 outbreaks.
ICE also says it’s working to get those in custody vaccinated: “ICE and the on-site medical professionals continue to work with the local health department to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to the community and vaccinate detainees who request a vaccination.”
But Valencia says health concerns in ICE detention centers in Georgia extend beyond COVID-19 and have existed for years. He says medical neglect and abuse have consistently occurred in facilities in the state.
“Years later,” he says, “we’re still having these issues.”