Four women accuse Stewart Detention Center nurse of sexual assault

Stewart Detention Center is operated by the private corrections company CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. The detention center can hold nearly 2,000 people. (Kate Brumback/Associated Press file)

Attorneys and immigrant rights groups have filed a federal complaint to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice on behalf of four immigrant women who say they were sexually assaulted by the same nurse while detained at Stewart Detention Center in Southwest Georgia.

The four women say they were assaulted by the nurse in 2021, and an internal review of employment records that show the nurse was still allowed to see patients after the women filed reports of sexual assault.

While all four women have been released, two reported assault while still in detention and say they were then threatened with years of jail or prolonged detention.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement contracts with a for-profit prison company called CoreCivic to run Stewart Detention Center. In 2016, a CNN report estimated Stewart alone nets the company $38 million in profits per year. 

CoreCivic said in a statement to WABE that they have dismissed two of the cases, but had put the nurse on administrative leave while the investigation happened.  Meanwhile ICE said it is investigating two of the cases. 

“This is not just a bad apple, this is not just some lone actor and that if they just would fire this nurse, everything would go back to normal and be okay,” said Monica Whatley with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.

“What this points to is a web of enablers and silencers within the detention center who propped up and basically made his actions possible by cornering these women and making them feel as though they will be retaliated against for speaking up,” she said.”

Stewart Detention Center only recently began detaining women.

After a whistleblower in 2020 drew federal attention to forced hysterectomies performed at Irwin Detention Center in central Georgia, some women were moved to Stewart. 

During that time, ICE refused visitors for immigrants in detention due to COVID-19, but advocates say those in-person interactions are crucial in monitoring the well being of people in detention and keeping ICE accountable for the safety of immigrants in its care.

Amilcar Valencia is the director of El Refugio, an organization that provides free housing and resources to those visiting loved ones at Stewart. 

He said El Refugio was only able to visit Stewart Detention Center once after ICE updated its COVID safety protocols this May. Now, visitation is shut down again due to an increase in COVID cases, and guidelines to reopen are very strict.

“Something needs to be changed in order to have that human connection, as I said, with the loved ones, but also that level of accountability that our presence brings at the visitation center,” Valencia said.

Throughout the pandemic, Stewart has had the most COVID-19 related deaths in any immigrant detention center in the U.S. The complaint also cited several scenarios where immigrants in detention were denied health care. 

Advocates are calling for the accused nurse to be fired at minimum, and for Stewart to be completely shut down.

Whatley emphasized immigrants have the legal right to seek asylum in the U.S. and said incarceration in a detention center is an extreme and unnecessary way to treat those trying to move for a better life.

“The conclusion for us is that these detention centers just cannot safely operate in Georgia,” Whatley said.

“The way that the private prisons go to these far flung places, to these rural counties, far from any resources, far from people’s communities. It’s just rife with neglect.”