Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We begin today with allegations of abuse out of an immigration detention center in Georgia. Just a warning, these allegations are disturbing.
Maria: I was shaking. I was scared. I wanted to leave. I stood up, asked him if it was done if I could leave. He said no, that there was still a lot left. He said he would let me leave after listening to my heart, it was the worst day of my life.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Maria, a woman formally detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. She was speaking with reporters from The Intercept. Her name has been changed to protect her identity. Maria alleges that on new year's Eve, 2021, a male nurse sexually assaulted her. She says he repeatedly groped her, forced her to touch him, and prevented her from leaving the examination room. In mid-July, the Southern Poverty Law Center and several immigrant advocacy groups sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security's Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office. The letter details the allegations made by Maria and three other women formerly detained at the Stewart Detention Center. All four women accused the same nurse of assault. Since the release of that letter, The Intercept reported on a fifth woman who came forward to report alleged abuse by the same nurse.
Erin Argueta: It is especially terrible when someone is detained and exposed to this abuse because they can't escape, they're in detention, there's language barriers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erin Argueta, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke with The Intercept about the particularly daunting situation faced by people in immigration detention who experience abuse.
Erin Argueta: There's fear about what's going to happen. Is this going to affect their immigration case? Is this going to be told to the judge, are they going to be sent back to the country they're escaping from, are they going to be denied other medical care that they need? There's just so many ways that the detention center holds power.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Stewart Detention Center is owned and run by CoreCivic, a private for-profit prison company. According to the company's LinkedIn page, they are "the nation's largest owner of partnership correctional detention and residential reentry facilities."
José Olivares: The facility itself really has quite an intense history of just allegations of medical neglect and abuse.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That is José Olivares, lead producer for The Intercept. He's also a former producer for us here at The Takeaway. He's been reporting on conditions within Stewart since 2018.
José Olivares: The facility previously detained only men, but last year when the Irwin County Detention Center shut down because of allegations of medical abuse that were taking place at that facility, Stewart began detaining women. The Department of Homeland security and ICE started sending women to the Stewart Detention Center where we've seen not just for women but men as well more allegations of medical abuse and medical neglect.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After several of the women mentioned earlier came forward they say that officials from CoreCivic and ICE called them liars and threatened them with longer detention sentences, claims that CoreCivic denies. During her interview with The Intercept, Maria said her experience at Stewart has made her question the decision to risk everything by coming to the United States.
Maria: How many more women have to keep going into this? My country where we don't have food, where you have to stand in line to eat, where I had to end my studies because it's difficult. I prefer to go through all of that than to be abused again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with José Olivares and John Washington, the co-reporter for this story.
John Washington: Almost any time we get a clear window into the actual reality of what conditions are like inside these attention centers it's pretty shocking. This letter is just yet another piece of evidence that the conditions inside are really terrible for the people who are detained there. Through our reporting, José and I were able to discover that there's at least five women who are alleging use by the same nurse but the allegations actually go beyond that as well. Besides the specific allegations about the nurse, there are dozens of other allegations against medical staff for various types of neglect or malpractice. What we tried to do is understand what exactly happened to these women and then what happened afterwards because we know that at least three of them reported it to detention officials.
Melissa Harris-Perry: John, did these women know one another or know of one another and of the abuse that the others were allegedly experiencing?
John Washington: Not at the time. A couple of them were detained at the same time but these allegations came out or came to light at least within the detention center separately. Since then we know that they have been in touch with each other. When five different people make allegations that really follow a very similar pattern of really uncomfortable and unprofessional flirtation and then crossing the bounds into direct harassment and sexual abuse and unnecessary touching and really, really disturbing comments that were made according to the allegations. The pattern holds across the five different women. We don't even know how many more possibly have faced something like this or if not from this exact nurse from other defender center officials as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: José, we here at The Takeaway reached out to CoreCivic. In response to your reporting, they sent us a statement saying, "It is CoreCivic's policy to aggressively investigate all sexual abuse allegations regardless of the source and support prosecution for those who are involved in incidents of sexual abuse. What do the women say has been their experience with CoreCivic after reporting to officials?
José Olivares: To be a little Frank, I find that comment laughable. Whenever there is a report of sexual assault or any sort of assault that takes place takes place inside the facility CoreCivic staff, Steward Detention Center staff are required to report it to ICE and required to report it to the local Sheriff's department, the local law enforcement. According to records that John accessed from the Sheriff's department, all of the records show that there were "in-house investigations" and that nothing happened aside from that. It was essentially CoreCivic investigating themselves inside the detention center and didn't necessarily follow the proper protocol in reporting to local law enforcement for there to be any other movement in terms of outside investigations. What CoreCivic told us is that two of their internal investigations found that the allegations were unsubstantiated and one was unfounded. When we asked clarity on what exactly that meant they didn't get back to us. We don't know exactly what that means. To our knowledge what we know is that two of the women when they reported and they both reported on different days and they both reported independently. They both alleged that when they told CoreCivic and ICE staff about these allegations that they said that they were both threatened with retaliation. They were both threatened with seven years in prison. They were very scared about having reported this and just the reaction that they received by the facility staff and by ICE officials. When they come forward and say, we reported internally, we were threatened by officials. By looking at medical records, we see very similar patterns happening here. I think it really should raise more flags for either the Department of Homeland Security for Congress, for other bodies within the government to be looking into what the proper protocols should be, what they are, and exactly what happened when these women reported inside the detention center.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I do want to know that relative to this CoreCivic did say in their statement, "we unequivocally deny any claims of threats or retaliation." John, I want to follow up on something José just said there about local officials, because I know that you also spoke with the Stewart County Sheriff's office. Were they involved in investigating any of these allegations?
John Washington: As far as we can tell they were not. They probably should have been, however. The sheriff told us that they don't investigate these allegations because CoreCivic volunteered to investigate them themselves which is a little bit disturbing given the gravity of what is alleged to have occurred here. Plus there are some logistical problems including the fact that the Sheriff's office doesn't like to go into the facility because of COVID concerns, but there's no other way for someone to report a crime or an allegation unless they're able to get to the Sheriff's office. The only body that's able to take them to the Sheriff's office would be CoreCivic itself. Also, the Sheriff's office told us that CoreCivic's argument for doing these investigations in-house is that there are so many of them, that they would clog the courts, but that to me seems to be why they should be investigated by outside authorities rather than letting CoreCivic themselves do their own investigations.
Melissa Harris-Perry: ICE is also part of this story. The Takeaway also reached out to ICE for comment. Their statement read in part, José, quote, "With respect to the recent allegations at the Stewart Detention Center, two allegations remain under investigation. ICE continues to follow all appropriate protocol to notify report and investigative requirements." Relative to ICE, José, what is your understanding of where these investigations stand at the moment?
José Olivares: Well, unfortunately, ICE has refused to answer any of our follow-up questions, or follow-up emails. We're very confused because we know there were five reports total. Three of those women reported inside the facility before they were released, and two women didn't file internally but were included in the letter by the Southern Poverty Law Center. ICE says two investigations were completed and two are ongoing. It's very unclear. I mean, is there four investigations that they've launched in total? Are the two investigations that are ongoing, are they even related to the nurse? Are they related to other people who are detained? Are they related to other facility staff?
It's very unclear, and it really also doesn't match what the statements that CoreCivic gave us, right? By asking CoreCivic questions, and by asking ICE questions, we're not getting any clarity, and so I hope with further records requests and further documents, and maybe more people speaking out, we'll be able to get more clarity as to what these investigations are the nature of them and exactly what they're looking into.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is happening now with these women? Where are they?
John Washington: All the women that we spoke with have been released, but we know that's as of at least early July, that the nurse working at the detention center was still working there. The last allegation we have from one of these women was much earlier this year, so we can assume that he has seen many other women since then. We know that a lot of other women are currently being detained. Numbers under Biden, though they had dropped precipitously after the pandemic, even during the Trump administration. The numbers of people who are detained are going back up right now.
This is potentially an isolated incident with this specific nurse, but we know that many other women are subjected to confinement, to being stuck behind this dark cloak of opacity that both the private prison companies and ICE maintains in these facilities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to take a quick break. One of the allegations made by women detained at the Stewart Detention Center right ahead.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I've been speaking with reporters José Olivares and John Washington. Last month, the two journalists reported on five migrant women who allege they were sexually assaulted by a male nurse at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Each of these allegations, we're talking about a male nurse and we're talking about women who have come forward with the allegations, but I don't want to leave a sense that vulnerability to sexual assault is an entirely gendered experience. Do you have any evidence or reason to believe that there may also be men or non-binary folks, or others who are being detained who are also vulnerable to sexual assault and abuse?
José Olivares: Certainly, right. I mean, the records that we received from records requests and Freedom of Information Act requests, show broader patterns. They also show historical patterns. We have seen examples in these records of men who are detained, who are sexually harassed or sexually abused by facility staff, regardless of gender. Also, we have records showing that even since before women started being detained in Stewart, there were people who were facing sexual assault and facing sexual harassment in Stuart itself. It's not isolated, you're absolutely right. It's not a gendered question. It really is a systemic question that I think it's important to keep in mind.
John Washington: If I could put a number to that as well, just to get concrete. We source records from a number of different places. We were able to put together that in an 11-month period. Over the past year up until I think, last May. We saw that there were 17 sexual assault allegations that took place in Stewart. 11 of those were alleging abuse by facility staff. To go back to your question about non-binary people, we know that that is an enormous problem in immigration detention.
It has been going on for a long time, that especially trans men and women are placed in the misgendered facilities or misgendered wings of facilities and undergo severe harassment and abuse. This is absolutely taking place now, around 200 or so immigration detention facilities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You all have begun to give me a bit of a larger picture. Let's take a step back from the specific allegation for a moment. Oh, José, talk to me about the Biden administration, and what steps it has or has not taken, relative to these for-profit immigration detention centers.
José Olivares: I think what's interesting here is seeing what immigration activists and advocates, and civil rights leaders have been asking for, and then comparing it to the reality of what we've seen under the Biden administration. When Biden stepped in, he announced that federal facilities run by the Bureau of Prisons would no longer be privatized. This was something that Obama had previously said, and then that Trump reversed on, and then Biden is once again saying that, "No federal facilities, no federal prisons are going to be run by private prison companies."
Unfortunately, that only limited to a very small number of federal prisons throughout the country. It does not extend to immigration detention centers. I think also, the disappointment for a lot of the civil rights advocates and immigration activists, is that we saw really horrific allegations of abuse taking place at the Irwin County Detention Center. This was another privately run facility. In late 2020, a whistleblower came forward, essentially calling out abuses that were taking place at this facility, including widespread medical abuse against women, which included allegations of non-consensual hysterectomy and gynecological procedures.
When this facility was shuttered by the administration, it was seen as a victory. It was seen as a very positive step forward. Then what we saw in response to the shuttering of Irwin, is women being detained at Stewart. Stewart, as we know, has a really just rough history of abuse, of neglect, and deaths in the facility in itself. We see these different moves for the Biden administration that may be seen as celebrated, but if we really kind of look a little deeper, we realize that it kind of is more of the same that we've been seeing for the past few years, regardless of administration, regardless of the political party that's an office.
I think with Bush, with Obama, with Trump, and with Biden, we're seeing similar allegations of abuse. We're seeing similar number of people detained in ICE detention centers, and we're seeing these private prison companies profits.
John Washington: When Biden issued that executive order, though there are absolutely some loopholes, and a number of private prisons are able to continue to run and private prison companies are able to continue to make money off of imprisoning of people, but one of the things that they did was there was a leaked GEO Group Report, internal report that said that they are going to look to supplement their potentially lost income from shuttering of some private prisons to expand their immigration detention portfolio. We've seen actually some prisons be converted, or now have plans to convert more of them into private prisons.
One thing that we have seen is, as José was mentioning that Irwin is no longer holding immigrant detainees, and the Biden ministration also closed a couple of other facilities notoriously, just decrepit and squalid facilities, but it's a system-wide problem. You can close a couple more, and potentially, the Biden administration might shutter one more, maybe. The problem isn't about a single facility as we see, and as a number of different journalists have been reporting.
All over the country, there are these abuses that are taking place, and as long as asylum seekers and immigrants are detained for months, sometimes even years in facilities that are run in a for-profit model, and we have very limited ways to understand exactly what's going on, I think we can expect these and potentially even worse abuses to continue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: John Washington is a contributor to The Intercept and a reporter for Arizona Luminaria. José Olivares is lead producer for The Intercept. Thank you both so much for being here.
José Olivares: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.
John Washington: Great to talk to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You can read the statements that The Takeaway received from CoreCivic and ICE online at thetakeaway.org. You can also find that link to José and John's reporting for The Intercept, as well as an in-depth report José did for The Takeaway back in 2019, which revealed that staff at Stewart skirted rules when dealing with a migrant with mental illness. That man died by suicide at the facility. Again, that's at thetakeaway.org.
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