When Juan Santiago Murat Garcia entered the privately contracted Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, he looked down at his food tray in horror. He saw white rice, pasta, and potatoes: all starch. Not great for a diabetic with high-blood sugar. So the 59-year-old grandfather asked for a diabetic tray.
“He was told that was the diabetic tray,” his wife, Cheryl Murat, says from the couple’s home just outside Atlanta. Murat, who is fluent in Spanish, used to be a court clerk in Cobb County, Georgia. She spends most days studying immigration law and helping other detainees with their deportation cases. But in late 2017 she was more concerned about her own family. Her husband had been in the United States since he defected from the Cuban army in 1979 and was detained in June 2017 for an expired driver’s license.
Garcia entered the detention center in December. According to his family, come New Year’s Eve, Garcia felt sick and asked to see a nurse. But officers said he needed to wait until 5 a.m. for one to come on shift. By then, he had a 102-degree fever and was throwing up. Not wanting the other detainees to get infected, officers moved him to solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement is a 23-hour-a-day affair where detainees are sometimes shackled in a small cell and released for 60 minutes a day to call loved ones, get legal counsel, do laundry, and maybe exercise. Increasingly, advocates say, guards may be putting detainees in solitary confinement for arbitrary reasons, such as getting sick or pushing for proper medical care, overlooking national standards that give them specific rights in these situations.
Murat says her husband managed to call her that night with an update. But after that, she heard nothing for three days. The run-around was agonizing. She called the field center for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts with the detention center, as well as Stewart itself, begging for information on her husband. She asked guards and nurses and secretaries if they could at least confirm he was there, alive, and not in a diabetic coma.
The answer was the same: We can’t provide medical information. Murat says that when she would ask for employees’ names, they would often hang up. She didn’t know it at the time, but her husband was sleeping on the floor, in a cold cell with no blankets, screaming that he was dying and losing his mind.
During her panic, Murat did reach one employee who was helpful. The person said Murat’s husband’s solitary confinement wasn’t punishment, but was intended to keep other detainees from getting sick. But why not send him to the infirmary? “Well, sometimes they’re just so busy there’s not enough beds,” Murat recalls the employee telling her.
Officers finally released her husband right before his fourth day in solitary, after an antibiotic brought down his 104-degree fever.
Immigration advocates, detainees, and their families say scenarios like these have become all too common in three Georgia detention centers that ICE uses to hold people during deportation proceedings. Though solitary confinement is a feature in all facilities, ICE detainees have a language barrier to contend with, and they’re sometimes sent to isolated centers like Stewart, away from their families and other legal resources. With an average daily population in 2017 of 38,000 detainees, some fear the problem is only getting worse as ICE devotes more resources toward arresting immigrants and imprisoning them, with less emphasis on oversight.
In 2011, a United Nations rapporteur compared solitary confinement to torture and said countries should ban the practice except in the most severe circumstances—and always for juveniles or people with mental disabilities. But around the time Garcia was moved to Stewart, a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General said several U.S. immigration detention facilities, including one in Georgia, are possibly misusing solitary confinement. The report, by way of example, described one detainee who reported “being locked down for multiple days for sharing coffee with another detainee.”
When 59-year-old Silvio Condomina was thrown in “the hole” for two days in 2017, he says it was in retaliation for speaking to a journalist, and there was no option for appeal.
“The hole was a little cell with water and a toilet. Nothing else,” Condomina says. “The door’s completely locked. You call the officers and they never answer. You never know when your medicine’s coming. And you cannot sleep, because there’s mental health patients screaming, yelling.”
Federal data from 2013 showed that 300 people were held in solitary confinement on a daily basis in 50 of ICE’s detention centers. But some are concerned that new factors are making the practice less regulated and more widespread. In April, ICE disbanded its Office of Detention Policy and Planning, an independent entity that worked to create fair detention standards. In an opinion piece for The Hill at the time, a founding director of the office, Dora Schriro, wrote a scathing op-ed:
“These reversals will make it easier and more lucrative for correctional facilities to qualify and it will entice the sheriffs and private prison companies that operate them to contract with ICE as it expands its capacity at all cost,” she wrote. “Most notably the Office’s closing signals a growing inclination towards the criminalization of immigration.”
And the more criminalized the process, the more likely ICE facilities are to experience overcrowding incidences like New Year’s Eve at Irwin, when Santiago Garcia was moved to solitary because of his fever.
In an email, ICE spokeswoman Tamara Spicer chose not to comment on individual cases. Instead, she gave a general statement, writing that the agency is committed to the safety of its detainees, as evidenced by the rules the Office of Detention Policy and Planning created over the years, including increased access to legal counsel and quality medical and mental health care.
The use of solitary confinement is “exceedingly rare” but sometimes necessary to ensure the safety of all staff and detainees at a detention facility, Spicer wrote. “Additionally, ICE detainees in segregation consist disportionately of those with the most serious criminal convictions.”
But when Splinter spoke to five detainees in Georgia—most with non-violent offenses, either resolved or old—they painted a different picture. These detainees aren’t murderers, but they’re still being placed in solitary, in some cases for medical issues that are out of their control. Which is why their advocates and families are frustrated: These detainments are civil and relate to whether a person can stay in the country. They aren’t for pending criminal charges. They shouldn’t require long, harsh imprisonment or unjustified stays in solitary, advocates say—especially when these cases can take years to resolve in backlogged immigration courts.
If you’re in solitary pending investigation, it’s considered administrative; detainees aren’t necessarily entitled to a hearing. Last year, Ayo Oyakhire, a 50-year-old man who lived in Georgia for nearly 20 years on a routine business visa, got in a fight over a TV remote with another detainee at the Atlanta City Detention Center. The next morning, he woke up in solitary confinement. He stayed there for 45 days, gained 20 pounds, and experienced intense psychological terror.
“It was like somebody was choking me,” Oyakhire says, “like I was being crushed while I was sleeping.” In Oyakhire’s account, the guards reacted nonchalantly to his pain: “Oh, you’re going to be alright,” he recalls them telling him. “Take your medicine, go back to sleep.” But Okayhire was most upset about the fact that he hadn’t received a hearing to challenge the factual basis of what landed him in solitary.
Come January 2017, as the White House switched hands, the Atlanta City Detention Center finally released Oyakhire from solitary confinement. Oyakhire was still rankled about his lack of hearing, and he filed a formal complaint against the officer and detention center. In May, the Atlanta Department of Corrections found no evidence that Oyakhire’s treatment had been against its policy. And that summer, ICE deported Oyakhire to Nigeria, meaning he’s back to where he started: separated from his family and waiting to hear whether he can return to the U.S.
Oyakhire still insists officers were supposed to give him a hearing within two days according to the facility’s policies, and ICE does make national policies for these facilities to use. But with detention centers, field offices, and ICE headquarters trying to share information, confusion can mount about what rules to follow.
ICE reworked a number of its policies in late 2016 while Oyakhire says he sat in his small cell, shackled. Before that time, officers were supposed to provide a hearing within 48 hours. Now if you’re getting disciplined, officers are supposed to complete an investigation within 72 hours of receiving an incident report. The report is due within a day. On that timeline, the longest a hearing should take is six days, and a person shouldn’t be in solitary more than 30 days, except in the most extreme offenses.
“But you didn’t do that,” Oyakhire says. “You left me in solitary for 45 days and now you’re saying that is not a violation of the policy. So what is the policy?”
Zakaria Taoufik, a 39-year-old man born in Morocco, couldn’t believe what he was hearing this past December. He had just been transferred from one corrections facility to another and the officer at Irwin County Detention Center was offering him an ultimatum: Take off your metal boot or go into solitary confinement.
Taoufik, who had just been transferred to the 1,200-person facility in southern Georgia, tried to explain: He’d broken his foot a few months ago in a different detention center, been outfitted with a boot, and was in the healing process, though the healing had been slowed when the boot broke and his former facility never fixed it. He also says when he was unexpectedly transferred from one detention center to the other, an administrative error resulted in him missing his prescribed antidepressants.
“I just got here,” he said, when the officer told him his choice. “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
But the officer had a different concern, Taoufik says. Because his boot had steel in it, Taoufik could pose a security risk to the other men and women being detained by ICE. So it was up to him. He chose solitary.
The first night, Taoufik says he only got 15 minutes out instead of 60. He sat, called his fiance. An officer slid food trays through a slot. He never changed his clothes. Taoufik says he has a history of bad cholesterol, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a weak immune system. After six days in solitary, he got a cold, gave up the boot, and entered general population.
“My foot is likely still broken,” Taoufik says in December. “I got my regular shoes and I’m walking on it slowly.”
“That story is plausible to me, because we encountered similar scenarios, except more often it involved detainees with crutches,” says Kevin Landy, the Obama-era director of the now-closed Office of Detention Policy and Planning. “We began reviewing those cases at ICE headquarters, because a facility policy to automatically place in segregation any detainee with crutches or similar devices would likely violate federal disabilities law.”
Because solitary confinement is a recurring issue, ICE created a policy in 2013 that called on its 24 field offices to review any person placed in solitary for more than 14 days. Under that policy, the detention centers also had to report anyone placed in solitary for serious medical or mental issues, suicide risk, or hunger strikes.
But with hundreds of people coming and going from solitary, it was challenging for ICE to approach every single case meaningfully, and some detainees fall through the cracks, like Taoufik and Garcia and Oyakhire.
In her frantic three days of calling about her husband, Murat recalls asking why the facility wasn’t shut down for these oversights: “This is punishment. You’re punishing them for being sick,” she remembers saying. The employee admitted Stewart sometimes used solitary confinement if the infirmary beds were full, Murat says. But when Murat asked if the facility was at capacity, the employee wouldn’t say.
“It doesn’t matter how many beds are available,” Murat says. “If they’re sick or they just complain too much, they’re going to ‘the hole.’”
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more from our Think Local series here.