Four Immigrants Have Died at Stewart ICE Jail in Georgia. Advocates Want It Shut Down

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A 44-year-old immigrant from Mexico died last week at Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigration jails in the United States and one that has been plagued by allegations of neglect and abuse for years. Pedro Arriago-Santoya was the fourth person to die at Stewart in just two years and the seventh person to die while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since October. An immigration judge had ordered Arriago-Santoya be deported in June. Instead, he was transferred to Stewart on July 10 as his removal proceedings continued. Two weeks later he was pronounced dead at a Georgia hospital. He had complained of abdominal pain and later went into cardiac arrest. Between May 2017 and July 2018, three immigrants died while detained at Stewart—a private immigration jail owned by the megacorporation CoreCivic. We speak with Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South and the former president of the National Lawyers Guild.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Georgia, where a 44-year-old immigrant from Mexico died last week at Stewart Detention Center, one of the largest immigration jails in the United States and one that has been plagued by allegations of neglect and abuse for years. Pedro Arriago-Santoya was the fourth person to die at Stewart in just two years and the seventh person to die while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since October. An immigration judge had ordered Arriago-Santoya be deported in June. Instead, he was transferred to Stewart on July 10th as his removal proceedings continued. Two weeks later, he was pronounced dead at a Georgia hospital. He had complained of abdominal pain and later went into cardiac arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: Last year, federal records obtained by the Atlanta public radio station WABE and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting unveiled serious issues at Stewart, including chronic shortages of medical and other staff, drug smuggling and long-term use of solitary confinement. In the documents, the facility’s conditions were described by some staff as, quote, “a ticking time bomb.” Between May 2017 and July 2018, three immigrants died while detained at Stewart, a private immigration jail owned by the megacorporation CoreCivic.

For more, we go to Atlanta, Georgia, where we’re joined by Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South, former president of the National Lawyers Guild. Project South currently involved in three class-action lawsuits against Stewart and CoreCivic.

Azadeh, thank you so much for joining us. Start off by telling us about Pedro Arriago-Santoya, what happened to him, and then how this fits into a bigger picture.

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Thank you very much for having me.

So, there is not a whole lot of information available at this point about the death of Mr. Arriago-Santoya. All we have is the press statement that ICE put out, that a lot of media outlets are unfortunately relying on, which is really a mistake in light of the pattern of ICE lies when it comes to abuse and deaths of immigrants at immigration detention centers, including at Stewart.

What we do know is that he complained of pain and medical issues, and at some point he was transferred to a hospital. But what led to the medical issues that he experienced is something that we still do not know. And, you know, we hope and very much demand an independent investigation into the circumstances of this death, as well as the three other deaths that have happened at the Stewart Detention Center, two of them by suicide, where men with mental health issues were placed in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. In one case, a 27-year-old, Jeancarlo Jimenez-Joseph, was left in solitary for 19 days before he hung himself. And then, very similar circumstances, Efraín de la Rosa, a 40-year-old man, was held in solitary confinement for 21 days. He also had mental health issues, and he hung himself, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the record at Stewart? There was a report back in May of 2017 by Project South and the Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrant Rights Clinic, which detailed the testimonies of people who had been detained there. What is that record?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: It’s a horrible record. You know, you have issues ranging from lack of adequate access to medical care, to solitary confinement—people just complaining about their conditions of detainment are placed in solitary, sometimes for just talking back to the guards—to the issue of forced labor at this immigration detention center, which, as you mentioned, is operated by one of the richest and the biggest—and the biggest prison corporation in the country. You know, in the past, its revenues have been in the range of $178 million. And yet, this prison corporation relies on the forced labor of detained immigrants and pays them between $1 to $4 a day. And it is very much forced labor, even though the government and the corporation claim it’s voluntary.

We know for a fact that immigrants, including our plaintiff, Shoaib Ahmed, in the class-action lawsuit that we currently have pending against CoreCivic, actually complained about not having been paid for a few days. You know, the meager pay that they were supposed to pay him, which was $4 a day, they hadn’t paid him for several days. And he said, “OK, well, there’s not going to be work tomorrow.” And so, for that, he was placed in solitary confinement for 10 days, where basically he only had an hour to shower every other day, and, you know, he was held in a cell for 23 hours a day. We are in touch with him. He has since been deported to Bangladesh, and he still continues to experience trauma from the experience he had at Stewart.

AMY GOODMAN: You are one of the most vocal voices around this for-profit private detention center. Can you talk about what you’re calling for now? And how has the situation changed under President Trump, Azadeh?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Well, we have called for Stewart to be shut down for about 10 years now. You know, since 2009, when Georgia Detention Watch, a coalition we’re involved with, put out the first report on the abuse of immigrants, we called for this detention center to be shut down. Our calls repeatedly went ignored. You know, we had another death, Roberto Medina Martinez, a 39-year-old immigrant, died of a treatable heart infection in 2009. Still the government did nothing.

We put out this report, this most recent report in 2017. ICE, you know, started talking to the media and saying that our report was false. And then people started dying. You know, a few days later, Jeancarlo Jimenez-Joseph died of suicide, after being placed in solitary. And, you know, we’ve had this really atrocious record of deaths just in the past two years.

And I think it just speaks to the atmosphere of impunity under this administration, where ICE, where CoreCivic employees that run the facility, other entities that might be involved feel a sense of impunity, that they’re not going to be held accountable, regardless of how they treat detained immigrants at this isolated facility.

AMY GOODMAN: They’re putting them in solitary confinement, even, for example, the two who committed suicide, who suffered from schizophrenia?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Yes, exactly, where we know that, according to the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, placing people in solitary for any more than two weeks amounts to degradable and inhumane punishment. And ICE even itself has strict rules for when people should be placed in solitary. So when a person is already suffering from mental health issues, definitely they should not be placed in solitary confinement. And yet they continue to do that when people complain about mental health issues, instead of actually providing them with the care that they need.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We have less than a minute left, but what are local officials, leaders there in the state, doing about this or have attempted to do?

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: Well, you know, speaking out. We had a victory back in September of 2018, where the mayor of the city of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, finally decided to basically hold true to the rhetoric of Atlanta being a welcoming city, and stopped detaining immigrants at the Atlanta City Detention Center. And now it looks like the jail is not going to be no more. It might be turned into a community center, which is a really positive development. So, that example is really hopeful.

You know, we hope that officials at the state level, congressional representatives, whom we have called on repeatedly—Project South was joined by 70 local and national organizations, after our report came out, in a letter to the Georgia congressional delegation—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We have about 10 seconds.

AZADEH SHAHSHAHANI: —asking them to initiate an investigation, and we continue to ask them to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, and, of course, we’ll continue to investigate these stories. Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, currently involved in a class-action lawsuit against CoreCivic, which runs the Stewart detention facility, former president of National Lawyers Guild and was the director of the National Security and Immigrants’ Rights Project for the ACLU of Georgia.

Happy birthday to Jahmaiah Lewis!

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