On April 26 and 27, I and several of my colleagues from the Immigration Justice Campaign traveled to Lumpkin, Georgia to volunteer with our partner, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), and learn what it’s like to work with clients at the Stewart Detention Center. The trip was both deeply horrifying and profoundly inspiring.
I’ve represented numerous detained asylum seekers before in the New York City area, so I thought I was prepared for conditions at Stewart. But while detention at the CoreCivic facility in Elizabeth, NJ is difficult for detainees, and access to clients is not easy for attorneys, Stewart is a far harsher environment.
The countryside around Stewart is lovely – forests, green fields, rolling hills, red Georgia earth. But when you turn down CCA Road to the detention center, the view changes radically. You’re greeted by multiple rows of fences that must be at least 15 feet high, topped with endless curls of barbed wire surrounding a prison building. A visitor must wait for unseen guards to remotely open two separate enormous gates through these rows of fences before he or she can even approach the front door. It’s an introduction to what the visitor will find inside.
In the fluorescent-lit waiting room, a visitor must pass through a metal detector, fill out a form on a clipboard, and then wait. And wait. And wait. Because there are only three attorney visitation rooms in a detention center that houses as many as 1900 men, attorneys must sometimes wait for hours to see a client.
We were lucky enough to wait only about 20 minutes for our visit with a detainee. But as the guard led us to the (locked) door to the visitation rooms, she insisted on taking the notebook I had with me and rifling through all the pages, opening and examining a few pieces of paper I had tucked into it. “Looking for contraband” is what the guards call this.
In my previous work representing detainees, I had always been able to meet with my clients in a room with no physical barriers between us. Not so at Stewart. The visitation “rooms” are really two separate rooms with a plexiglass window separating them. Only a narrow slit at the bottom connects the two spaces. There are phone handsets in each room that give the appearance of allowing conversation between the attorney and the detainee – but as my interpreter explained, they don’t work well, and the cords are so short that they don’t allow you to talk while looking at the face of the detainee. So we shouted under the plexiglass barrier. The sound echoed off the bare cinder block walls. Noise from the corridor outside made it even harder to hear the 18-year-old boy we were there to interview. At one point he apologized for not remembering a date – telling us that his memory has gotten confused while he has been in detention. The difficulties lawyers face in communicating with their clients are a small taste of the harsh conditions that detainees live in at Stewart 24 hours a day. It’s a system clearly designed deliberately to frustrate access to counsel at every turn. A system designed to de-humanize, demonize, and disempower those imprisoned at Stewart.
But we also saw deeply inspiring things at Stewart: the unwavering commitment of the SIFI staff and volunteers, and of other attorneys who make the trip there, to sit in the waiting room for hours on end, to visit and counsel clients who without representation will certainly be deported. We heard from several volunteers from across the U.S. who talked about what a life-changing experience their week in Lumpkin had been, how they had gained important skills and a passionate interest in changing the immigration system, a devotion they would bring home to friends and colleagues. We heard from the smart, creative, dedicated staff at SIFI about their commitment to this work, no matter how many hours the guards force them to sit and wait and no matter how harsh the immigration judges at Stewart are. We left with a renewed, deepened sense of the importance of the work of representing detainees in remote locations, and of how meaningful it is to join with the other advocates doing this work. We left inspired.
If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities, remote or in-person, for attorneys or non-attorneys, please take a moment and sign up at the Immigration Justice Campaign. You’ll change lives – your client’s and your own.