Do you know where Lumpkin, Georgia, is? Up until last Saturday, neither did I. In fact, it didn’t even pop up as a location on my GPS when I was looking up directions. For many undocumented immigrants and their families, however, Lumpkin, Georgia, represents pain, exclusion, and suffering in the form of Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigration detention facility in the U.S., owned by one of the largest for-profit prison corporations, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
As part of the annual vigil of remembrance in front of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC, formerly the School of the Americas), CCAO staff joined Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Jesuit Priests, Franciscans, and 1,000 others in a march and public witness in front of Stewart Detention Center.
Stewart Detention Center is about a two and a half hour drive away from Atlanta, the largest airport. The location not only makes it extremely difficult for families and legal service providers to access, but also difficult for immigrants who are flown from across the country for detention. When released (often in the middle of the night), they have no idea where they are, or how to get home.
There have been multiple complaints of poor treatment and conditions inside the facility toward people who, for the most part, have no criminal record or history of committing violent crimes. According to a Detention Watch Network report, conditions in Stewart range from problems with the water supply, food quality and safety, issues with hygiene, verbal and physical abuse by facility staff, and the continued use of segregation units as punishment.
Perhaps most horrifying are the heartbreaking stories of people in Stewart being separated from their families. At the public witness, we heard from a man who was locked up for a year and a half. As I listened to his wife’s tearful testimony of her husband missing their two children’s’ birthdays, Christmases, and daily lives, pain and frustration welled up within me. Stewart is owned by one of the largest for-profit prison corporations, CCA. According to a 2011 ACLU report, “Private prison companies…essentially admit that their business model depends on locking up more and more people.” It is disheartening to know that many will reap monetary reward as a result of keeping an individual who poses no threat to public safety from his family.
Columban Missionaries on the U.S-Mexico border are no stranger to the effects of separation of families and detention of immigrants. Father Bill Morton often visits prisoners in jail in El Paso, Texas, to offer spiritual guidance to inmates. The Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach has also been involved with our interfaith partners in Washington, DC to end the so-called “bed quota,” which requires detention facilities to fill 34,000 “beds” with undocumented immigrants each day in order to receive funds from the government.
When we respect the dignity of the person, we reject our fear of the other. I am reminded of scripture from 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.” Much of what drives the detention of immigrants is fear. In an effort to strive to be “perfect in love,” we will continue to shed light on the way our immigrant brothers and sisters are being treated in detention, call on Congress to end an inhumane and costly bed quota, and oppose the opening of the new family detention facility in Dilley, Texas, that will house mothers and children who have fled to the U.S. in hopes of escaping horrific violence in their home countries during the past summer.