“The worst day of my life,” Maria, an asylum seeker from Venezuela recounted the harrowing abuse she suffered at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. After waiting for two hours in the waiting room, she was confronted by a male nurse who guided her to the exam room. Although untrue, he stated that he spoke Spanish and there was no need for an interpreter to be present in the room, forcing Maria alone with the nurse. For the following thirty minutes, he made inappropriate remarks and sexually abused Maria, despite her frequent “no’s” and “stops”. While Maria could hear someone knocking on the door several times, the nurse replied that he was not finished, insisting that she wait in another office to finish the exam. Upon trapping her with his body, the abuse and assault continued.
Maria’s ordeal was not an isolated incident, but rather one of four sexual abuse allegations made by women within Stewart Detention Center against the nurse. Their stories portray a man who took advantage of his position within the detention center to abuse women in vulnerable positions. While the incidents each woman encountered were blatant violations of their human and civil rights, the aftermath of Maria’s ordeal is not one of justice.
Upon reporting the assault to a guard and recounting the abuse she suffered from to two officers, they insisted that her story was simply a lie. They relied on the fact that the nurse did not speak Spanish and could not have communicated with Maria, and that there was no other room for him to take her to finish the medical exam. Maria was interviewed every day by officials, and at one point by a mental health professional who asked if she was suicidal. Officers continued to threaten Maria for making these statements, saying that if she continued with her report, she could receive seven years in prison. It was only upon receiving the opportunity to contact lawyers for assistance that she was ultimately able to file a formal complaint, detailing the allegations against the nurse.
Since its opening in 2006, Stewart Detention Center has developed a history of human rights violations, as it’s been described as the “deadliest immigration jail”. Under the operation of CoreCivic, a corporation that owns and manages private prisons, “Stewart faces lawsuits regarding the wrongful death of people it its care,14 inability for people detained to access counsel,15 insufficient medical care, 16 and its involuntary and abusive forced labor practices”, as detailed in the complaint filed on behalf of Maria and other victims. Despite consistent pleas for help from the detainees within these detention centers, their vulnerabilities continue to be exploited at the hands of the staff within ICE facilities, who frequently are able to leave unscathed. In many instances, women were abused in areas considered as blind spots, hidden from the view of security cameras. A guard told one woman, that if she “behaved”, she wouldn’t be deported. On several occasions, key witnesses whose testimony would prove vital in these sexual assault cases were deported before they could testify. The government “allowed their most powerful witness to be deported,” Linda Corchado, an attorney for a woman who was deported after reporting patterns of abuse a guard inflicted upon her, said. “How can we possibly take this investigation seriously now or ever pretend that it ever was from the outset?”
While there have been initiatives to reform ICE detention centers, research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union illustrates how the lack of authority the government has over these detention centers could be an underlying cause for the propagation of these issues. Four out of five people within ICE Detention Centers are reported to be held within private facilities as the federal government has outsourced the majority of immigration detention centers to private prison companies, including CoreCivic, LaSalle, and the GEO Group. Under the Trump administration, ICE increased the number of detention centers by 50% as private facilities housed 91% of the people being held in the centers being opened that year. However, upon reviewing these contracts, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that “that ICE failed to adhere to its own process for signing these agreements, concluding that ICE did not have documentation to justify the need for the space.” Moreover, ICE failed to adhere to the staff’s portrayal of the issues many of the detention centers faced, including understaffing, safety issues, and poor conditions, as they advised against the development of new ICE facilities.
In 2021, President Biden issued an executive order that called for the Attorney General to “not renew Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities, as consistent with applicable law”. While measures have been initiated to remediate the issues, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “closer examination shows that little has changed”. With few established parameters that protect immigrants within ICE detention centers and hold those that violate their human rights accountable, private prisons will continue to emerge as profitable even through the exploitation of vulnerable populations within these facilities. `