A Visit to Stewart Detention Center

Dave Zenner and I went to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA recently to visit detainees in partnership with El Refugio, an organization that offers free hospitality to families who drive to this remote location to visit family members who are being held there. These detainees are actually undocumented men who are in this country illegally or who have lost their temporary status due to one of several reasons; a misdemeanor, a minor traffic violation and in many cases, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Immigrants account for less criminal activity in our country than any other segment of the population.

The SDC is actually a for-profit facility that the US government supports at a staggering rate of over $160/day per detainee paid to the agency running the facility, and there are about 1,800 men in this facility. Yet, the money doesn’t reflect the conditions under which these men live. According to detainees, the food is terrible, conditions are poor and for those who are willing to do jobs such as laundry, they are paid a paltry $2-4 per day for their work. The men are allowed one visit per week—one one-hour visit—and then only through a glass barrier with a phone line connecting them. There are five phones lined up with half-walls separating each of them, so there is little privacy and lots of noise to block out. Outgoing calls at a payphone are very expensive as are the snack foods available in a limited commissary.  

SDC is very isolated, on the edge of Lumpkin, far from other towns. Lumpkin itself is tiny, fewer than 3,000 residents with few services to offer. A drive down Main Street shows shuttered buildings and very few businesses, yet the quaint homes seem well-cared for and some are quite beautiful.    

We drove there from Atlanta on a sunny, beautiful Saturday, arriving at the center late morning after stopping first at the El Refugio House, a newly renovated and expanded home that can sleep several families at any one time as they come to Lumpkin to visit detained loved ones. Turner Broadcasting bought the El Refugio House and gave it to the organization to provide safe, free and convenient housing for the families who had to travel some distance to visit loved ones in detention.  

It is a shock to the senses to drive up to the center run by CCA, now called CoreCivic, with a fence that is made up of huge coiled barb wire. We were advised to leave everything in the car except for our drivers licenses and the car keys, because that is all one is allowed to carry in. We entered the center through two locked doors; first one, which closed behind us, then the second, which opened only when the first was securely closed. We had been given names and case numbers of detainees who had no family or friends close enough to visit them, so we were going in to visit for one hour with our “new” friends. After filling out paperwork, we sat and waited to be taken back to the phones. We waited 2 1/2 hours before being summoned.

The waiting room was bare though not depressing. It gradually filled with mostly Hispanic men, women and children, all of whom were there to visit a loved one. The children were well behaved and fortunately, the mothers were allowed sippy cups and snack food for them as they all waited their turns patiently.Yet, our trip was inspiring, witnessing the dedication of the folks serving El Refugio. Our trip was easy – there was no drama, and everyone we met was pleasant – even the guards. Our trip was tiring – it was a long drive each way and included a 2-1/2 hour wait at the prison to see our detainees. Our trip was spiritually moving.

Once we were called back we sat at our designated phones and began our conversations. I spoke with A, who is 34 but was born in a central American country and brought to the US by his parents when he was 1 1/2 yrs old. He was deported 7 years ago on a drug possession charge, but returned to the US once he had the money to make the journey again. During the hour spent with him he re-told the adventure of gathering necessities needed for the trip, (phone, charger, insulin, syringes) and how he crossed the Rio Grande, who helped him and who hindered him. A is very likable and I was sad to hear he was going to be deported the following Thursday yet he had exhausted all appeals available to him. The last thing he said to me was “I hope we can stay in touch”. I did ask my contact at El Refugio to give him my email address. She, too, thinks A is funny, resourceful and has a positive attitude — “My favorite” is how she thinks of him.  

Dave spoke with M, a Somali, who is an amazing individual who really tugged at Dave’s heart with his unbelievable story – while still maintaining his overall good nature. M has lived in the Atlanta area most of his life,  is the only child in his family that wasn’t born in the US, was a student at Georgia State, yet is fighting to avoid deportation to Somalia, a place he has never lived.  

Our trip was eye opening. We learned a great deal about what is wrong with our immigration system. We will surely be recommending that others make this sojourn and return as often as possible.

We will advocate for the refugees and their families. These are decent human beings who want nothing more than to work, raise their children in a safe atmosphere and be part of our society. To demonize them is unconscionable and dehumanizes all of us. These for-profit institutions need to be dismantled and closed. The very idea of making money by institutionalizing people who are seeking asylum is abhorrent to me. Our country is falling into an abyss and we must not let it happen. Don’t be a bystander; get active.