“We are scared. Here, we cannot keep the distance of two meters that is called for. All of us are placed together, we are 76 people in every section… there does not exist a way to be able to avoid an outbreak. Please, we ask for help from everyone…We are human beings, we also need to be with our families to be able to help them.”These are the words of an immigrant detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.

This is the horrid reality all detained and incarcerated individuals in Georgia jails, prisons and ICE contracted detention centers are facing in light of COVID-19, an infectious disease that has already spread to at least 29,452 Georgians and killed 1,246.  As the outbreak made its way into the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged the public to wash their hands, wear a mask, use social distancing, and stay at home.  However, for those incarcerated—this is impossible.

Nationally, over 14,000 incarcerated individuals and 606 detained immigrants have tested positive for COVID-19, with new cases doubling in prisons every week. In Georgia, 286 individuals incarcerated in Georgia Department of Corrections facilities (GDC) have tested positive for COVID-19 along with 90 employees. Local jails in Georgia are also struggling with outbreaks of COVID-19. Sixteen individuals incarcerated at Fulton County Jail and 13 incarcerated individuals at the Dekalb County Jail have the disease. Private prisons contracted with ICE are also reporting a staggering number of COVID-19 cases in Georgia; 11 detained immigrants and 44 employees at the Stewart Detention Center, one detained immigrant at Folkston ICE Processing Center and two detained immigrants and one employee at the Irwin County Detention Center have confirmed cases.

There are now more COVID-19 cases among the employees and detained immigrants at the Stewart Detention Center than there are in all of Stewart County. These numbers are gross underestimates as jails and prisons across the country are reporting lack of testing, and ICE has only tested 1,285 out of the 32,000 immigrants currently in its custody. It is only a matter of time until more individuals will be infected and endangered as Georgia is the among the top four states with the highest incarceration rates in the country and is one of top five states with the highest number of people in immigration detention daily. The lives of thousands of individuals are on the line.

At a minimum, federal, state and local authorities should follow the example of District Attorney Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and immediately release significant numbers of incarcerated and detained individuals before we see an even larger catastrophe. 

Across Georgia, detained immigrants and other incarcerated individuals report dangerous conditions and lack of proper protection against COVID-19. At the Fulton County Jail, individuals describe receiving inadequate sanitizing materials and being forced to make masks out of things like underwear and menstrual pads. Similarly, at the Stewart Detention Center, Irwin County Detention Center, and Folkston ICE Processing Center, immigrants have reported not receiving proper sanitizing material and proper protective gear, as well as lack of medical care. At Stewart and Irwin, immigrants were forced to create makeshift masks out of t-shirts and socks in order to protect themselves several weeks ago. At Stewart, immigrants reported that guards demanded they remove the makeshift masks. Immigrants have since gone on hunger strikes to protest the inhumane conditions at Folkston, Stewart and Irwin.

So far, nine individuals incarcerated in GDC prisons and one employee have died from COVID-19. Nationwide, 218 incarcerated individuals in prisons and 13 employees have died in addition to two guards at an ICE Detention Center in Louisiana. Incarcerated individuals with the virus are most affected, dying at four times the rate of prison employees. Detained and incarcerated individuals in Georgia fear for their lives as the virus continues to spread.

Shavonda Bennett, a member of Women on the Rise who was recently released from Union City Jail, shared with us that people inside the facility are scared because the facility is not clean, there are lack of COVID-19 procedures, medical care, sanitizing materials, and information being shared. During an interview with Project South, Bennett stated “they don’t clean or sanitize the cells properly… and after being in there 4 months, they changed my blanket one time.” She mentioned lack of protections against COVID-19, stating that “instead of having a procedure in place, they basically just put everybody on lockdown. You can only come out 15 minutes a day [to shower].” In addition, Bennett reports that the facility has no instructions for those incarcerated on how to protect themselves against the virus. The individuals inside “don’t know how you can get infected or don’t know the symptoms of having it…they have no way of educating themselves about it because they [officials at Union City Jail] don’t let them look at the news, they don’t have pamphlets or booklets…so you have to wait for somebody to come in from the outside to tell you what’s going on or call home to find out what’s going on.”

Bennett also reported lack of medical care where “even if you call for a medical problem, it takes them a minute to get there and they don’t really want to deal with you. If you’re not bleeding or going to die, they really don’t want to call medical for you.” She reported that she even had to help her friend who came back from surgery because officials at Union City Jail did not. She stated “It was horrible. I helped her because they didn’t take care of her. They didn’t help her like they are supposed to.” Just a few days ago, she received a call from a woman in the jail informing her that another woman inside tried to kill herself by jumping off the top balcony. She reported that the officers weren’t able to get to her quick enough, so the woman was able to do it again. She exclaimed “someone higher up needs to step in and needs to address the situation. It’s to the point where you have people’s mothers in there, you have peoples’ grandmothers in there…the situation needs to be addressed….[individuals] need to be removed from Union City period because there are too many issues.”

Similarly, in a harrowing video from inside, immigrant women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center pleaded with ICE and the public to release them in light of the horrid conditions. One woman said: “We’re very afraid of being incarcerated here and dying here. We are daughters, we are mothers, we are wives, we need freedom. Please help us.”

Another woman stated: “We are exposed to the virus. They don’t give us anything to cover ourselves so that we can protect ourselves.” The women went on to talk about the lack of medical care and COVID-19 prevention procedures in place including how “officers come and go without protective measures.” After this video went public, Irwin punished the immigrants by putting them on lockdown, limiting access to phones, taking away their ability to video chat with loved ones for several days, and subjecting immigrants on hunger strike to solitary confinement. In addition, five women were subjected to solitary confinement for two weeks for participating in the video. This happened days after one of the women shared with an Intercept reporter that an ICE staffer met with them and told them that ICE can’t help them. She said the ICE staffer told them: “ICE can’t do anything if we get sick…That the hospitals are filled and there’s no place to send us. He said that ICE’s only job is to deport us, and they make their money doing that. He said we were like roaches that ICE keeps in boxes. To make money.” Four days after this call, five of the women were removed from the unit in handcuffs and were punished with solitary confinement.

Similarly, when detained immigrants at Stewart have decried conditions and advocated for their release, officials have threatened them and used pepper spray, guns with pepper-spray pellets, and solitary confinement in the past few weeks. One detained immigrant from Stewart explained: “We need to maintain a distance… but that is not possible…because we are almost 76 people…and we are piled up.” Another man lamented: “There are many people close together… everybody touches the tables. The phones, they are all dirty…everyone is using the same phone.”  Just last week, several individuals from unit 3 reported that many men in their unit had signs of COVID-19 like symptoms with body pain, fever, cough and other flu like symptoms. One man noted that he sent 5-6 medical requests since he felt sick but still has not been taken to the medical unit. He said this also happened to others who are sick in his unit.

Advocates, organizations and experts across the country are calling for decarceration in response to COVID-19. In addition, physicians, attorneys, community organizations and Congressional leaders have all called on ICE to immediately release detained immigrants, especially those most vulnerable to COVID-19.  Public health experts from Emory University warn: “the close quarters of jails and prisons, the inability to employ effective social distancing measures, and the many high-contact surfaces within facilities, make the transmission of COVID-19 more likely.” Similarly, Dr. Robert Greifinger, an infectious disease expert concluded that the Fulton County Jail will not be able to contain a COVID-19 outbreak and warned: “Every hour inmates are not released is going to exact a cost in human life.”

South Georgia hospitals are already overwhelmed and health care professionals are worried that it will only get worse. According to Dr. Michael Khoury and Dr. Amy Zeidan with Emory University: “We must do everything possible to ensure our hospitals are not overwhelmed.  We can only achieve this goal if we take all steps to reduce and to slow the rate of infection of those who are infected by the virus at any given time. If the virus spreads inside of a prison, jail, or detention center, there is no doubt that local hospitals will see hundreds, if not thousands, of new patients in a short period of time.” Meanwhile, ICE and the Atlanta Police Department are continuing to arrest and detain individuals in Georgia during the global pandemic, further jeopardizing the safety of our communities, workers, and our state’s healthcare system.  

Advocates have long called for the closure of immigration detention centers, jails and prisons. Most recently, Project South was joined by over 50 organizations calling on the Georgia Congressional delegation to pressure ICE to release all detained immigrants in Georgia in light of COVID-19 after the Atlanta ICE Field Office refused to respond to requests from many organizations including the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights calling for the release of immigrants detained in immigration detention centers in Georgia.  Advocates with Georgia Detention Watch have called for employees at Stewart to receive paid leave and stay at home in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, and keep employees and detained immigrants safe. Innovation Law Lab and other groups have also called on the Georgia Department of Public Health to release detained immigrants and send health inspectors to the detention centers. The Southern Center for Human Rights, Women on the Rise, and 13 other organizations called on Chief Erika Shields of the Atlanta Police Department to stop making non-essential arrests. Organizations like Southerners on New Ground and Women on the Rise have called on Fulton County to release individuals detained at the Fulton County Jail and have organized a protest in their vehicles.

Grassroots organizations across Georgia led by Black and Brown communities continue to fight the abusive carceral system every day. Jails and prisons across the country and world have already begun releasing incarcerated individuals due to the global pandemic. Georgia must do the same. During this unprecedented moment in history, we must demand the release of all detained and incarcerated people. As one detained immigrant at Stewart said: “Please, have mercy for us who are here locked up and who cannot do absolutely anything.” Another detained immigrant at Stewart reiterated: “Please tell Immigration to let us go. We want to be with our families…if someone has the coronavirus [inside Stewart], it could pass on to all of us.”

Now is the time to act and be on the right side of history. We must free detained and incarcerated people in Georgia before it is too late.  

*The Stewart quotes are from audio recordings that family members took and sent to El Refugio to be dispersed widely in order to raise awareness about conditions there. The original audio was translated from Spanish.


Priyanka Bhatt is Staff Attorney at Project South. Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal & Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild; she tweets @ashahshahani.