Written by Mallika Balakrishnan
“Irwin County Line” by J. Stephen Conn / Flickr
One woman looks into the camera, hands crossed on her chest. “I was the first one to get sick,” she says. “I went to the medic…they simply laughed at me.”
“We don’t have any protection,” says another. “The officers come in and out, come without protection. We are scared, my God, we are scared.”
Both women are currently detained at Irwin County Detention Center in rural Georgia, United States. Cramped in unsanitary conditions, they’re at high risk for COVID-19. Protection is so scarce that they’ve risked retaliation to record a video (shared via GLAHR, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights) documenting the situation.
At the intersection of carceral logic and xenophobic border policy, immigrant detention centers have always posed a grave threat to human rights. Now, as COVID-19 lends new urgency to criticisms of the detention system, an increasing number of human rights organizations are calling for the immediate release of all detainees.
“The ‘Black Hole’ of America’s Immigration System”
Georgia harbors two of the largest for-profit immigrant detention centers in the US: Irwin County Detention Center and Stewart Detention Center, ICE’s second largest facility. Since 2017, four detainees have died at Stewart, nicknamed “the ‘black hole’ of America’s immigration system.” Access to clean water, soap, and edible meals is scarce at Stewart and Irwin. In addition to lack of hygiene and basic amenities, detainees report regular abuse and neglect.
Citing ICE’s consistent record of disregard for public health and the imminent threat of overwhelming the capacity of Georgia’s health system, a coalition of nonprofit organizations like GLAHR and Project South have called on Georgia’s Congressional delegation to release all ICE detainees.
With at least 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Stewart and Irwin, immediate action could save thousands of lives. Policymakers must understand that the scale of the current crisis has been made possible by a detention system created with disregard for the marginalized. In other words: minimizing the damage of COVID-19 will demand a recognition that places like Stewart and Irwin are, by design, a recipe for disaster.
Human Rights in the Crosshairs
ICE detention combines inhumane border policy with the dangers of mass incarceration. At this nexus, immigrants stuck in the US detention system face inordinate challenges to access justice.
Some detainees are asylum-seekers who did not expect to be locked up for seeking safety. The US has a historically poor record of compliance with international standards for the treatment of asylum-seekers, and the current administration’s functional termination of the right to asylum at the southern border has only heightened an already unlawful, hostile reality. The anti-immigrant violence being perpetrated at Stewart and Irwin, with COVID-19 as a vehicle, is just one piece of a larger narrative of xenophobia and fear that’s been in motion for years.
Many of those in ICE detention have committed no crime beyond trying to exercise their right to asylum, but nobody deserves to suffer the violence of prison. Critical analysis of immigrant detention should take into account the mutually reinforcing logics of immigrant detention and mass incarceration in the US. The detention of asylum-seekers enables and is enabled by the unquestioned dominance of carceral (so-called) solutions. In her pioneering work Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis articulates the dangers of such a dominance: “The prison […] functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers.”
How many times in the past four years (and beyond) have we listened to the vilification of migrant communities as undesirable and worse? How many times have we seen a refusal to grapple with the material legacies of racism and imperialism in our border policies?
The work of prison abolitionists like Davis, in conjunction with a commitment to migrant justice, is important for understanding why immigrant detention is a doubly dangerous paradigm that allows for the current conditions at places like Stewart and Irwin. We cannot afford to understand the pandemic as creating an era of exceptional, brand new crises of rights and justice. Rather: the experience of this moment as a gruesome stress test of our system demonstrates the presence of fault lines built into the status quo.
#FreeThemAll: The Call for Immediate Release
As one of the first to “reopen” the economy, Georgia’s government has caught international attention. The state should instead be taking measures to protect its most vulnerable. Each second that immigrants remain locked up at Stewart and Irwin creates unnecessary risk, defies public health recommendations, and perpetuates inhumane treatment. In that distant tomorrow when we once again invite neighbors in and embrace our loved ones, let us be keenly aware that immigrant detention must not be allowed to reoccupy its role in our politics. In a different world, we might try cobbling together some semblance of “normal” on the other side of COVID-19. But in our world, where the cracks in safety nets throw people to their deaths as a matter of routine, nothing, to echo Arundhati Roy, “could be worse than a return to normality.” As such, the call to free all prisoners should be heard now—but such action should be understood as long overdue.
Note: the ideas in this piece echo the labor of many organizers and movements of impacted communities. Some suggested starting points for those interested in learning more: Detention Watch Network; Critical Resistance; Project South; Free Them All For Public Health; your local anti-detention network.