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With Claims Of Abuse, Stewart Detainees File Formal Complaint With Federal Agency

Detainees at Stewart Detention Center said detention staff cut off their phone communication, restricted visits and denied outdoor recreation time after 72 detainees held a protest in the prison yard by refusing to go back inside.
Detainees at Stewart Detention Center said detention staff cut off their phone communication, restricted visits and denied outdoor recreation time after 72 detainees held a protest in the prison yard by refusing to go back inside.
Credit Kate Brumback / Associated Press

A formal complaint from 28 detainees at Stewart Detention Center was filed with the Department of Homeland Security this week. They said conditions at the immigration detention center in southwest Georgia are abusive.

Detainees said detention staff cut off their phone communication, restricted visits and denied outdoor recreation time. That’s after 72 detainees last month held a protest in the prison yard by refusing to go back inside.

Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South, said the group and other advocacy organizations have been documenting violations at Stewart since 2008.

“We have continued to call for it to be shut down,” she said. “And our calls for accountability have gone unaddressed repeatedly.”

The complaint, filed with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, reads, “We [detainees] haven’t seen the sunlight for a week; they have taken away our right to recreation within this prison.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said staff urged detainees to go inside during the protest. When detainees didn’t comply, staff used pepper spray to disperse the group.

“Medical staff evaluated all individuals who came in contact with the pepper spray,” the agency said. “One detainee claimed an incident-related injury, and was treated at a local hospital and returned to the facility.”

Earlier this month, Project South also wrote a letter to Georgia politicians in Congress. The letter calls for an investigation into Stewart.

“Recent accounts from detained immigrants at Stewart indicate overcrowding, understaffed medical personnel, verbal and physical abuse, disregard of medical needs, accessibility concerns, and insufficient nutrition with irregular mealtimes,” the letter reads.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it provides safe and humane conditions of confinement.

“ICE has a series of detention standards that ensure that individuals with medical conditions or other specific needs receive exceptional care while in our custody, which exceed the standards of most local jails and prisons,” the agency said.

Four people have died at Stewart since 2017. Two were by suicide.