“There is freedom and liberty [in the United States]; that’s why I came here,” a Nigerian immigrant explained while locked behind the bars of the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC).
Over the last year, dozens of detained immigrants shared harrowing stories of fleeing persecution and violence only to find themselves locked away and subjected to more inhumane treatment at ACDC. “It was so horrible, I almost hurt myself. If I had a blade I would’ve cut myself,” one man said after being held in solitary confinement at ACDC for 48 hours.
These stories are documented in a report from Project South and Georgia Detention Watch that was released last week. Titled “Inside Atlanta’s Immigrant Cages,” it is the result of interviewing 38 detained immigrants, speaking with a number of local immigration attorneys, touring the ACDC facility and inspecting scores of documents obtained from the city.
In late 2013, the city of Atlanta began marketing itself as a “welcoming city” for immigrant communities. In 2014, the city created a Welcoming Atlanta Advisory Committee to help “foster a welcoming environment in the city of Atlanta for all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or place of origin.” In former Mayor Kasim Reed’s statement on the move, he said: “Atlanta’s diversity and vitality has been built on the strength of immigrant populations that come to enjoy new freedoms and opportunities.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta has been profiting off the imprisonment of immigrants at ACDC, receiving payments from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that totaled more than $6 million dollars in fiscal year 2016 alone. Atlanta cannot claim to be a “welcoming city” while it continues to work with ICE, jailing immigrants for profit. Furthermore, the conditions reported by those inside Atlanta’s immigrant cages paint a picture of city policy that is anything but inviting.
Medical care at ACDC ranges from nonexistent to grossly inadequate. One detained immigrant said that he put in nine medical requests and had to wait 21 days before seeing a doctor. Another said that he requested medical care for two months without a response, while others report having given up on making requests entirely because they never get answered.
For those who do receive treatment, it is often insufficient. One detained man with HIV was not given medication for more than a month. Several other immigrants noted that ACDC cuts prescriptions for physical conditions in half. After having an allergic reaction to a medication, despite clear notes of this allergy in his medical records, one man was transferred to Grady Memorial Hospital where he was prescribed a new medication. Upon his return to the jail, however, this prescription was halved by the doctor at ACDC. Similarly, another detained immigrant’s medical sheet called for 14 units of insulin, but he was only given 8. When he notified a corrections officer, they replied: “You’re only get[ting] 8 because this is jail and that’s how it is.”
Mental health care at ACDC is no better. Detained immigrants regularly report the overuse of medication and note the lack of any type of therapy. Perin Tognia has tried for months to get proper mental health care. He said: “I need a therapist…I need to decrease medication…I know [the medication] will kill me…I cannot be punished more, I have been punished enough.” Since entering ACDC, Mr. Tognia’s medication dosage has more than doubled and he suffers from side effects including memory loss. When an outside therapist tried to visit him to provide pro bono therapy, she was denied access.
Labor conditions at the facility are also troubling. Detained immigrants at ACDC are made to work eight hours per day without compensation; they don’t even receive the $1 per day that immigrants at other ICE facilities receive. They are promised better food, but often times do not even receive that. Recently, they have been made to take on two shifts. One detained immigrant said that they work more than 40 hours a week and that “officers force us to go to work. [They] wake us up at 2 a.m. [and] take off [our] blankets. If you say you don’t want to, [that] you’re tired, [they] slam [the] doors.” Those who work in the kitchen have gone on labor strike twice in the last few months alone due to mistreatment.
There are also reports of sexual assault at ACDC. One man disclosed that while he was sleeping, an officer came into his cell, pulled off his blanket and rubbed his crotch. When he awoke, the officer ran out and would not allow him to contact a supervising officer. The next day, when the detained man attempted to file a complaint, officers put him on lockdown so that he could not share this information with anyone.
Despite the deplorable treatment, many immigrants do not file complaints or grievances because they are afraid of the officers and potential repercussions. One immigrant shared: “We don’t make complaints; we’re afraid of them.” Those who do file grievances note that they never get responses and nothing ever changes. One detained immigrant gave up after filing 12 requests for hot water in the showers during the cold winter months. He told us: “We can’t do anything. [The officers] know as well as we know that nothing will change.”
Some Atlanta city officials continue to propagate the false narrative that ACDC is better than other facilities and they should continue to work with ICE for the benefit of those detained. But the accounts from detained immigrants at ACDC detailed in this report prove otherwise. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took a step in the right direction when she temporarily halted the intake of new immigrants at ACDC. It is time for Atlanta to stop colluding with ICE permanently and end its agreements to detain immigrants.
Priyanka Bhatt is an attorney and legal fellow at Project South. Azadeh Shahshahani is the legal and advocacy director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.