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LUMPKIN, GA - MAY 4: The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Exclusive: ICE put detained immigrants in solitary confinement for hunger striking

At a remote private ICE facility in Georgia, detainees refused to eat until they’d seen their deportation officer

Beginning last April, and picking up in the weeks following the November election, dozens of detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in rural Georgia went on hunger strike in protest of their detention. The private prison corporation that runs the facility, CoreCivic — formerly Corrections Corporation of America — responded swiftly to the expanding demonstration: as immigrant detainees refused to eat, CoreCivic staff began immediately locking them in solitary confinement for their participation in the non-violent protest.

According to ICE detainment logs obtained by The Verge through a Freedom of Information Act request, more than two dozen detainees were put in solitary confinement for hunger striking — some simply for declaring they would refuse to eat, even if they hadn’t yet skipped a meal. The logs also show that CoreCivic may have attempted to gather information on hunger strike organizers through cultivating detainee informants, who were later locked in solitary confinement themselves for protection.

The logs indicate that many of the detainees were protesting their detention and lack of access to any administrative recourse through ICE. “I just want to be deported,” one hunger-striking detainee in solitary confinement told guards in November. Another log reads: “The detainee states he will not eat until he is seen by ICE.” One particularly troubling set of logs generated late last November show that several detainees had gone on strike for the exact same reason: “Detainee stated that he will not eat until he can see his Deportation Officer.” These detainees were immediately locked in solitary confinement upon announcing their refusal to eat. In many cases throughout the logs, CoreCivic states that hunger striking detainees had been placed in isolation for “medical observation.”

CoreCivic’s solitary confinement logs provide a window into the unforgiving conditions inside a network of privately run ICE detention centers that Barack Obama presided over, expanded, and then handed to President Trump last month. It is in these facilities that new waves of detainees will find themselves locked as a result of Trump’s pledge to rapidly deport millions of immigrants. Last week, it was reported that President Trump had directed his administration to take steps to dramatically expand the sorts of immigrants whom ICE could detain and deport. In response to actions like these, the stock prices of for-profit prison operators like CoreCivic have significantly risen since Trump’s victory in November.

The solitary confinement cases outlined in the records obtained by The Verge took place at the Stewart Detention Center, a facility managed by CoreCivic outside Lumpkin, Georgia. The Lumpkin facility has been the subject of past allegations of inhumane treatment of immigrant detainees, who can be kept behind bars for years awaiting resolution of their deportation cases.

In April, it was reported that two detainees at Lumpkin had gone on hunger strike to protest their prolonged detention. The detainment logs obtained by The Verge do not specifically address the April incidents but show that, shortly thereafter, detainees at the facility launched a previously unreported series of hunger strikes that spanned months.

ICE has been previously accused of using solitary confinement to retaliate against hunger-striking detainees at other facilities. In comments to The Verge, ICE sent its detention standards stating that hunger-striking detainees should be put in isolation when “medically advisable.” In at least a half-dozen cases, detainees were placed in solitary confinement immediately after having declared hunger strike, although they hadn’t yet had an opportunity to miss a single meal. In most logs, detainees relented and began eating again after less than a week locked in solitary confinement — a form of captivity that human rights groups say can amount to psychological torture.

The ICE logs detail the Lumpkin facility’s use of “segregation,” a term that corrections officials use to describe scenarios in which detainees are kept in single-person cells with tightly limited human contact for the overwhelming portion of each day. This practice is known to the general public as solitary confinement. Since, 2013 ICE has been under a directive that imposes stronger oversight of its use, calling the practice “a serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives.” The Lumpkin segregation logs obtained by The Verge were recently submitted to ICE headquarters in accordance with this 2013 directive.

“These documents confirm what we’ve been hearing in terms of immediate and really brutal crackdowns by using solitary as a means of deterring the hunger strikes and almost as a punishment,” Azadeh Shahshahani, an attorney with the Atlanta-based social justice group Project South, said of the Lumpkin facility. Shahshahani says that the facility responded to detainee demonstrations in 2014 and 2015 by using what she views as excessive force, including placing detainees in solitary confinement.

The logs obtained by the Verge, which span the entirety of 2016, detail a variety of reasons relating to the hunger strike for placing detainees in solitary confinement. In late December, CoreCivic locked a group of detainees in solitary confinement for terms of 60 days because surveillance footage allegedly showed them “being involved in initiating a group demonstration, encouraging others to go on a hunger strike and refusing to lock down for count,” according to the logs. One detainee went on hunger strike after CoreCivic locked him in isolation while it investigated allegations that he was “charging detainees for haircuts as he is a barber.”

The logs indicate that CoreCivic may have attempted to cultivate detainee informants to help gather information about the hunger strike. The entries state that detainees were placed in solitary confinement as a protective measure after other detainees had identified them as serving as “snitches” for CoreCivic personnel seeking to gather information on the demonstrations.

“This incident involved the above listed detainee believing to have been a snitch in the hunger strike incident which occurred in unit 6,” one log reads. “The unit team received a message that Detainee […] would be physically assaulted due his alleged cooperation with the unit staff.”

In comments to The Verge, CoreCivic spokesperson Steve Owen said that detainees had not been punished for hunger striking. No “detainees at the Stewart facility have been placed in restrictive housing in retaliation for hunger strikes,” Owen said in an email. “Providing a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to our care is our top priority, and we work in close coordination with our partners at ICE to ensure the wellbeing of the detainees at the Stewart Detention Center.”

In at least 30 cases, the logs list “hunger strike” as CoreCivic’s primary reason for placing striking detainees in solitary confinement. In addition to allowing isolation of hunger striking detainees when “medically necessary,” ICE’s guidelines allow detainees to be locked down to preserve the order of a facility.

Daniel B. Vasquez, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison, where he oversaw a large bloc containing more than a thousand solitary confinement cells, told The Verge that it is necessary to isolate hunger strikers from the general population. “If a person has declared a hunger strike, you have to isolate them in administrative segregation and monitor them on a medical basis,” Vasquez said. He added that it is also possible to punish such detainees by issuing an order to eat that detainees continuing to strike would defy. “So then I issue you a violation report for refusing orders.”

The logs make clear that, in some cases, ICE had ordered CoreCivic to place detainees in solitary confinement for hunger striking. Several of the ICE logs state that ICE officials within the agency’s Health Services Corps had ordered striking detainees to be kept in segregated housing for medical monitoring, although most of the logs do not specify ICE’s specific involvement.

Citing medical privacy laws, ICE declined to comment on any cases of hunger strikers being placed in solitary confinement at Lumpkin. Pointing to various offices that provide oversight of the use of solitary confinement for ICE detainees, an agency spokesperson said that “ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”

CoreCivic’s Owen also challenged The Verge’s use of language. “It's also important to note that restrictive housing is not ‘solitary confinement,” Owen said. “We do not have the latter at our facilities.”

CoreCivic emphasized that detainees locked in Stewart’s “restrictive housing” units have the same access to visitation, telephone time, law library, mail, and barber shop as general-population detainees, and are given one hour of recreation time per day. The detainees “continue to have daily interaction facility staff, including medical professionals, chaplains, and ICE officials,” Owen said of CoreCivic’s restrictive housing.

CoreCivic’s preferred term of “restrictive housing” is correctional industry language for what is generally known as “solitary confinement,” according to the Department of Justice. The term “solitary confinement” has fallen out of favor within the correctional sector “in part because it conjures a specific, and in some cases misleading, image of the practice,” according to the Justice Department. “Not all segregation is truly ‘solitary,’ at least in the traditional sense of the word.”

Vasquez agrees, calling the term imprecise and “a word that doesn’t really exist any longer.”

Craig Haney, an expert on solitary confinement at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that CoreCivc’s description of its restrictive housing at Stewart seemed to be simply a description of conditions generally referred to as “solitary confinement.” “The fact that they get things like haircuts and mail, and must have routine contact with staff,” Haney said, “does not change the nature of the experience.”

Solitary confinement has been repeatedly found to exact a lasting psychological toll. It is common for prisoners who are locked in solitary confinement in the United States to be kept in their cells 23 hours a day and given one hour of recreation per day. At Lumpkin, CoreCivic limited opportunities to go outdoors for some of the hunger-striking detainees. “As a precaution,” several logs stated, “outdoor recreation will be suspended for the duration of their strike.”

ICE has previously been accused of using solitary confinement to punish detainees who hunger strike. In Washington state, after ICE reportedly locked some 20 detainees in solitary confinement during a hunger strike, the state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sued, alleging that the state had infringed on the prisoner’s First Amendment rights. A judge ordered ICE to release the detainees.

Located more than a two-hour drive from Atlanta — home to the closest regional ICE Enforcement and Removal Office and many of the state’s attorneys that would represent immigrants — the Lumpkin facility, has been deemed a “black hole” of the US immigration system where unrepresented detainees can languish for years in harsh conditions. A report published last year by the American Immigration Council stated that only 6 percent of detained immigrants at Lumpkin had representation from an attorney.

Shahshahani, who has been involved with efforts to close the Lumpkin facility for years, says that the facility also saw hunger strikes in both 2014 and 2015. At issue, she says, where both facility conditions — documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others — and long periods of detention even for detainees who said they would rather be deported than stay in the facility.

Noting that it can take an entire day for a lawyer or advocate to travel from Atlanta to the Lumpkin detention center for a meeting, Shahshahani says that the facility’s remote location compounds detainees’ feeling of helplessness.

“It goes back to this same issue of isolation at the facility,” said Shahshahani. “Immigrants at the facility feel that they don’t have anyone representing them.”

Logs obtained by The Verge detail ICE’s use of solitary confinement on hunger striking detainees at a private facility in Georgia. Entries not relating to the hunger strike have been removed from the spreadsheet. In some cases, The Verge could not determine whether multiple, similar entries represented different detainees or duplicate logs. The numbers cited in the story are based on a conservative assessment of potential duplicate entries.

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