LUMPKIN, Georgia – In an isolated corner of southwest Georgia, about 20,000 illegal immigrants a year pass through one of the largest federal immigration centers in the U.S., awaiting almost certain deportation.
Like Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers around the country, the Stewart Detention Center in rural Lumpkin is a flash point in the immigration debate.
Immigrant activists claim inhumane treatment and say the centers are proof of a broken system, while ICE defends its handling of detainees and Americans angered by illegal immigration say criminals should be sent home. With emotions high on all sides, it is difficult to fully capture the daily life of detainees.
Unable to leave the premises, their freedom is limited. But detainees circulate the common area of their units, except during overnight lockdown from 11 p.m to 5 a.m. and during several headcounts a day. They are allowed an hour and 20 minutes in outdoor yards surrounded by high fences topped with barbed wire each day.
There are two types of living units at Stewart: a cluster of two-person cells and dormitory-style layouts with bunk beds. Each unit houses between 62 and 88 men and has a common area with tables, microwave, pay phone and two televisions airing shows in English and Spanish.
"I try not to think too much about things, and I spend a lot of time studying the Bible," said detainee Gilberto Vazquez Ovalles.
The 34-year-old from Mexico has lived illegally in the U.S. since December 2004. During that time, he had been ticketed three times for driving without a license. The fourth time, in mid-January, the restaurant cook was arrested and sent to Stewart.
In interviews with The Associated Press, arranged with the help of an immigrant rights group, he and two other detainees said they aren't treated badly. They said some guards seem to yell for no reason but most are reasonable. The food isn't great, but not terrible. Mostly, they are frustrated at the slow pace of the deportation process.
ICE officials say the average stay at Stewart is between 30 and 45 days, but all three detainees interviewed by AP had been there longer than that. Michael Webster, ICE assistant field office director at Stewart, said the length of a detainee's stay is tied to the immigration court system. A case backlog combined with some foreign governments being slow to issue necessary travel documents results in some deportees facing an extended stay.
The most common complaint from detainees is a lack of information about the progress of their cases and unwillingness by deportation case officers to answer questions, said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.
"It's an issue of human rights," she said.
Warden Michael Swinton said deportation case officers visit each detainee living area at least once or twice a week, but detainees are not required to speak with them.
Ovalles said in the roughly three months since his arrival at Stewart, he hadn't spoken with his case officer. According to ICE records, the officer visited Ovalles' living area 32 times between early January and mid-April.
Nicholls' group is a part of Georgia Detention Watch, an Atlanta-based coalition of immigrant rights groups and individuals that recently released a report criticizing conditions at Stewart. Based on interviews in December with 16 detainees, the report claimed food and medicine were withheld as punishment, individuals were sent to solitary confinement without a disciplinary hearing and there were too few toilets.
Webster denied the allegations and said ICE detention centers must comply with the agency's national detention standards, which are verified by independent inspectors. In January, the center received further accreditation from the American Correctional Association, a private, nonprofit organization that develops prison standards.
"You just couldn't get away with what was being said because of the oversight that's in place here," Swinton said.
On a recent morning, it was raining too hard to go outside so detainees were confined to their living areas. In two areas visited by an AP reporter, some looked bored while others talked on the phone, chatted with fellow detainees or worked on puzzles.
Some pushed mops in the hallway under seemingly minimal supervision, while others clipped fellow detainees' hair in a small barbershop. Detainees who choose to do these and other jobs — preparing food, helping in the library, doing laundry — are paid $1 to $3 a day.
Basic toiletries, slip-on shoes, three sets of clothes and meals are provided. With money earned from detention center jobs or sent by their families, detainees can buy extras at the commissary, where top sellers are fried pork skins, flour tortillas and refried beans.
Detainees' security risk level is indicated by the color of their uniforms: blue for low, orange for medium and red for high. The level is determined by criminal history but can be adjusted if they cause problems.
The most common disciplinary problem is chow hall scuffles, Swinton said. The offending detainee is taken to a single cell and allowed out for an hour a day. The detainee can still write letters, read and listen to a radio. Each case must be reviewed within 72 hours.
Stewart, an all-male center, can house 1,924 detainees, but the actual number on site fluctuates as new detainees arrive from around the region and others depart for their home countries or another detention facility. On a recent Monday morning, there were 1,699 detainees.
One consistent statistic is the nationalities of the detainees, Webster said. About half of the detainees on any given day are from Mexico, 10 percent from Guatemala, 10 percent from Honduras and 5 percent from El Salvador. The rest hail from a variety of countries.
Stewart is operated by Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, the country's largest private prison firm. CCA has about 340 employees at the center, including Swinton, and ICE has an additional 60.
Immigrant advocates say detention is often unmerited because, in many cases, illegal status is discovered when someone is arrested for a relatively minor offense, such as driving without a license, that wouldn't generally result in jail time.
Webster said he and his agents are enforcing the law but emphasized detention centers are not prisons and are not meant to be punitive. One of the main reasons for detention, Webster said, is that illegal immigrants facing deportation are considered a high flight risk.
"For my officers here, we personally don't care if they get a green card or are removed," Webster said. "We just want the case cleared."