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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
When it comes to companies that are set to profit from President Donald Trump’s policies, here’s a clear winner: private prison operator CoreCivic (CXW).
The Nashville, Tennessee-based company has experienced almost a complete turnabout since Mr. Trump emerged victorious in the November election. Before voters cast their ballots, CoreCivic was having a rough year. Its stock had plunged by almost 50 percent from January 1, 2016 through Election Day. In August, the Justice Department said it would stop using private prisons, representing a hit to CoreCivic’s operations.
Yet just a few months later, CoreCivic’s fortunes have reversed, thanks largely to the election of President Trump and his directives to crack down on illegal immigrants. Since Mr. Trump’s victory, its shares have more than doubled, far outpacing the 9 percent gain in the S&P 500. Analysts now expect the company to have a strong 2017, with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Tobey Sommer describing it among one of his best investment picks for the year.
“It’s gone from a risk of seeing business go away to a chance for the company to grow,” Sommer said. “Because they have a lot of idle beds, they have an opportunity to sign new contracts and generate new profits.”
CoreCivic may not be a familiar name, which in part may be due to its rebranding push in October. Previously known as Corrections Corporation of America, it changed its name to CoreCivic to reflect its shift from a corrections-focused company to providing a “wider range of government solutions,” CEO Damon Hininger said in a statement.
For instance, CoreCivic is investing in reentry programs, which help former inmates transition out of prisons and into the workforce, as well as in real estate.
CoreCivic declined an interview but in a statement said it offers services “to governments led by elected officials from across the political and ideological spectrum.”
Yet key to its near-term turnabout is President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. Mr. Trump has ordered the hiring of thousands of additional border patrol agents and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workers as part of his vow to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants.
In a February 9 call with analysts to discuss CoreCivic’s latest earnings, Hininger credited the company’s fourth-quarter growth largely to what he called ICE’s “heightened utilization” of its services in Southwestern states. He also specifically cited Mr. Trump’s immigration policy, saying it will drive demand for the company’s detention facilities.
Carl Takei, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said while investors stand to profit, they shouldn’t lose sight of what he calls the moral issues wrapped up with the private prison industry.
A September ACLU report alleged that privately operated detention facilities “have a particularly grisly track record” because they have incentives to cut costs and boost shareholder return, such as by reducing medical staffing. The report cited alleged cases of violence, suicide and sexual assault.
Some students at universities such as Princeton are pushing their colleges to divest from private prison companies, which could make the industry the latest to be targeted by the student divestment movement. In recent years, college students have pushed their campus administrators to rethink investments in stocks that they perceive as contributing to environmental or social harm, such as oil and tobacco companies.
“The contracts make it clear that this is about commodifying human beings,” the ACLU’s Takei said. “The government specifies they will deliver a certain number of units to the private prisons. The units in this context are human beings.”
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In June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.
The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.
The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.