More than 200 detainees held at the Stewart detention center (SDC) in Lumpkin, Georgia, are raising their voices against the inhumane conditions and mistreatment they endure daily. In a recent petition addressed to local officials and the Biden administration, organized by Sopheak Pal, an SDC detainee, the petitioners are demanding immediate action.
“We’re treated worse than criminals [and] Ice takes advantage of our situation,” Pal told the Guardian. “This place is horrible, like the way they treat us … we are all human, and we should all be treated like humans.”
The Stewart facility is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detention center operated by CoreCivic that has been the subject of recent reports detailing alarming issues, including deaths, prolonged solitary confinement, sexual abuse, and medical care neglect. A federal civil rights complaint highlighted the consequences of a mold infestation crisis, with one detainee losing roughly 50% of their vision due to lack of medical treatment. The SDC has also faced accusations of forced labor, leading to a recent settlement reached by attorneys working to restore detainees’ rights.
“These places are inherently abusive, and the only way to protect people from harm is to release them and close these places down,” Freedom for Immigrants’ senior communications manager Jeff Migliozzi, who takes complaints with detainees such as Pal, said. “Stewart is a notoriously deadly detention center – one of the deadliest in the country. There have been many deaths as a result of substandard care and overall neglect. All of these conditions have persisted despite Biden being in the White House.”
The petition, filed alongside a civil rights complaint reviewed by the Guardian, also highlighted Pal’s own mistreatment – including medical neglect. He said its primary goal is to raise awareness about inhumane living conditions and ultimately shut down facilities like the SDC.
“I know the public does not know what is going on in immigration,” the 42-year-old Pal said. “A lot of them think that we’re coming here illegally and stealing jobs, [but] they have been misled. That is not the case for a lot of people. We came here legally, [are] law-abiding citizens … But because we were not born in America or did not apply for citizenship, we don’t get a second chance. We get thrown away – deported. Even though we have been here 99% of our lives.”
Pal’s family, originally from Cambodia, fled to Thailand under the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1985, they were granted entry to the United States as refugees seeking resettlement. Pal, a green card holder for over two decades, has been in Georgia ever since. Despite a troubled youth and a nine-year prison sentence, he has been working on his rehabilitation since his release in 2009. In 2015, he graduated from Chattahoochee Technical College and began working as an online clothing reseller. Things went smoothly until June, when Ice showed up at his home and took him in.
Pal told the Guardian he is unsure what prompted Ice to detain him. He had lived without incident for 14 years and renewed his green card three times since his release. He believes his arrest may be a consequence of the lingering hardline immigration policies of the Trump era, some of which the Biden administration has embraced to address the increase of migration.
“As an immigrant, I don’t have a chance to learn from my mistakes,” he said. “When I was in prison 23 years ago, they treated people way better than they treat people in immigration – better food, everything was better. They didn’t try to violate your health, [there was] better medical care. Stewart and immigration doesn’t want to give us any of it … I don’t know how to describe this place.”
Migliozzi said detainees such as Pal have taken significant risks in petitioning the SDC because detainees are often left in limbo about their case and deprived of updates. Despite the threat of worsening their situation, they chose to take a stand anyway.
Priyanka Bhatt, a senior attorney with Project South, a non-profit advancing racial justice, echoed similar sentiments. Even when groups like hers and FFI voice concerns, she says nothing happens.
“It is horrifying that survivors and advocates have to go to such lengths just to get simple information,” she said. “It is clear that Ice has no transparency, accountability, or competence in the way it operates. It is incredibly difficult for survivors [in] Ice custody to get answers, let alone justice and recourse. It is astounding that Congress continues to give billions of dollars to an agency that essentially operates as a black box.”
Since organizing the petition and encouraging other detainees to sign and join his efforts, Pal had to file a complaint because he had been facing retaliation.
He said: “One of the unit managers called me to the office and said, ‘I hear you’re going around getting people’s signatures for some petition. If you keep doing that, I’m gonna charge you with incitement.’
“After that, I kept my mouth shut, but of course, I still kept getting signatures for our freedom, but was quiet about it. When some lawyers came down to inspect the facility [after getting wind of the petition], the unit manager realized that I was still doing the petition. So she came to the unit, wrote me up, started writing other people up – like half the people in the unit – like trying to punish us as much as possible. Then she took away our commissary and put us in segregation.”
A 2020 report by the US Government Accountability Office found that detention services managers identified deficiencies in field offices and facilities, but these findings are not enforceable because the locations are not obligated to address the specified shortcomings. The report also highlighted that Ice does not have reasonable assurance that field offices effectively investigate or resolve detainee complaints promptly.
“We have a system of Ice itself failing to address violations occurring in its custody,” Bhatt said, adding that they’re also “failing to hold accountable private prison companies who are violating Ice performance standards”.
She said: “This is why Project South strongly believes that Ice cannot be reformed – it must be defunded.”
Immigration attorney Sarah Owings’ experience in representing SDC detainees is similarly aligned. She said the facility had been “problematic since it was built. It is remote from population centers, hard to staff appropriately, and hard to obtain accountability for bad actors from local, state, and federal law enforcement mechanisms when things go wrong.”
Representatives from Ice did not return a request for comment.
Pal faces imminent deportation to Cambodia – the birthplace of his parents and a place he says he has no ties to. He is hoping for a stay through a pardon request his lawyers recently filed.