LUMPKIN — About 1,500 people from across the United States — including a group from LaGrange — gathered in the small town of Lumpkin on Saturday to protest for immigration reform.
Activists, some of whom traveled from the West coast, called for the closure of Stewart Detention Center, a deportation hub in Lumpkin operated by the for-profit company Corrections Corporation of America under contract by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility has 1,750 beds and is one of the largest in the country, according to ICE.
Activists allege detainees at SDC have been subjected to human rights violations, including maggot-infested meals, 23-hour per day lock downs and lack of access to legal council. The government, through ICE spokesman Bryan Cox, denied those claims Friday and said CCA is required to follow strict guidelines set by ICE and the center is regularly inspected.
Jonathan Burns, CCA’s director of public affairs, similarly denied the claims and said SDC staff comply with all ICE regulations and the center is in compliance with all federal standards.
Anton Flores-Maisonet, head of the the LaGrange faith-based human rights group Alterna, spoke during the protest and called for calm and compassion in dealing with undocumented immigrants.
“Love crosses borders, think of the many borders we have — not just the socially constructed borders, but also the borders in our heart,” Flores-Maisonet said. “We are in a time when we’re hearing such venomous rhetoric as it relates to the stranger, as it relates to the refugee. That fear and manipulation erects walls and militarizes borders, but love crosses borders.”
One guard who spoke on conditions of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said he wished the activists would research the detainees at the center because some have violent and dangerous backgrounds.
Mario Aregullin, 26, said he was detained at the facility from December 2010 to June 2011 after he was caught driving without a license. He agreed that some of the detainees in the center are dangerous, but said not all — including himself — present a threat to the public. Aregullin said he came to the U.S. as an infant and didn’t learn he was an undocumented immigrant until his parents told him at age 17.
“I’ve never even been to Mexico,” he said. “Other than when I was born.”
Aregullin said he felt the conditions inside the prison were cramped and inhumane.
“It was like a chicken coop inside there,” he said. “It was a big long room with 65 guys, three toilets, two urinals, five showers and no privacy.”
After a series of speeches and songs, 12 activists were arrested for trespassing through the gates of the facility. The activists planned to be arrested, calling it an act of civil disobedience. There were no injuries and the rally remained peaceful.
Corrections Corporation of America, SDC’s operator, is America’s largest private correction company and is based in Nashville, Tennessee. The company operates 60 facilities in 21 states and the District of Columbia. The Stewart Detention Center opened in 2006, according to CCA’s website.
Tyler H. Jones is a reporter for LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.