Immigration detainees being held in the Stewart Detention Center in south Georgia have a filed a federal lawsuit against the for-profit company that operates the 2,000-bed facility, citing “deplorable conditions” inside the prison.
The case survived its first significant legal hurdle when U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land recently denied a motion by CoreCivic Inc., the company that operates the prison, to dismiss the suit.
Plaintiffs Wilhen Barrientos, Margarito Velazquez-Galicia and Shoaib Ahmed, current and former Stewart detainees, brought the federal class-action lawsuit against CoreCivic Inc., which operates the 2,000-bed facility in Stewart County.
The suit was brought under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the plaintiffs allege that CoreCivic operates a “deprivation scheme” in which it forces detainees to work through threats of physical violence, solitary confinement and deprivation of basic necessities.
Land’s ruling does not mean that the case will automatically be decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, as the judge carefully pointed out in the 17-page order.
“The Court’s ruling today that Plaintiffs have stated a claim for relief under the TVPA certainly does not mean they will ultimately prevail,” Land wrote on an order dated Aug. 17. “They must of course still prove their allegations. And in doing so, they will be required to point to evidence that supports the reasonable conclusion that CoreCivic threatened them with a serious risk of harm if they did not persist as laborers. That burden will be a heavy one. But they have today plausibly stated such allegations to overcome CoreCivic’s motion to dismiss.”
The Stewart Detention Center is one of the largest prisons in the country housing immigration detainees. The focus on the prison, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, has intensified under the stricter immigration policies of the Trump Administration.
The suit describes some of the living conditions inside the facility in great detail. The claims include: the bathrooms are in poor condition; some showers have no hot water, while other showers have no cold water; the open dormitories house 66 people in bunk beds with no privacy; each dormitory has one bathroom with several sinks and toilets; and the showers in the shared bathroom do not have temperature control.
Conflict and violence occur frequently in the open dormitories, which the detainees refer to as the “Chicken Coop” because of the unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, the suit alleges.
But, according to the plaintiffs’ suit, there is a way out of the “Chicken Coop” and that entails working for CoreCivic in jobs that help operate the prison, which is the largest employer in Stewart County.
“CoreCivic does not adequately furnish detainees with basic hygiene products like toilet paper, soap, lotion, or toothpaste,” the suit claims. “Instead, CoreCivic instructs detainees to buy these basic necessities from the commissary. CoreCivic also provides no means for detainees to contact people outside Stewart other than expensive phone cards available for purchase at the commissary. ... Detainees must use funds from their inmate fund accounts to make purchases.”
One way to get money in the inmate fund is to participate in the prison’s “Voluntary Work Program.” The jobs include scrubbing bathrooms, cleaning the medical center, preparing meals, washing detainees’ laundry and cleaning floors. CoreCivic generally pays detainees in the program between $1 and $4 per day.
“Detainees in the voluntary work program are spared from some of Stewart’s more unfavorable conditions,” the suit alleges. “Program participants are not housed in the Chicken Coop. Instead, they are provided more favorable living quarters with private two-person cells, a shared common area, a bathroom shared with only one other cellmate, and a shower with temperature control. But when participants refuse to work, CoreCivic threatens to transfer them back to the Chicken Coop, revoke their access to the commissary, transfer them to solitary confinement or initiate criminal proceedings against them.”
The plaintiffs maintain it’s a “deprivation scheme” that provides CoreCivic with cheap labor, thus enabling the company to increase its profits.
The three plaintiffs, all of whom worked in the kitchen, cite specific threats as part of the lawsuit. Barrientos alleges CoreCivic threatened to transfer him to the Chicken Coop, revoke his access to the commissary, and put him in solitary confinement, when he refused to work or when CoreCivic believed he was organizing a work stoppage. Velazquez-Galicia alleges that he witnessed CoreCivic threaten to transfer detainees who decline to work from the preferable two-person cells to the Chicken Coop. Ahmed alleges that CoreCivic threatened to put him in solitary confinement if he stopped working.