A lot happened in my last month in Lumpkin, and I fell down on the blog (see what I did there?). So, I’m going to backfill a bit. We got a new lead attorney OTG, Erin Argueta. She was a direct services attorney at the Ocilla site, and agreed to uproot her family once more to come watch over Team Lumpkin. It was absolutely wonderful to have a smart, knowledgeable, capable boss on the ground, someone who was only a few feet away in my case, as we were sharing an office.
There were also not one but two quarantines: one for chickenpox, and one for mumps. The chickenpox started before the holidays, and for a while, we were unsure whether anyone actually had mumps. We were hearing that “some people were exposed to mumps before they got” to Stewart. However, in recent weeks, we have heard from our clients and potential clients that there are two confirmed cases of mumps, one which is proving to be rather serious.
Of course this is dangerous for the people detained at Stewart, but it also makes an already inconvenient situation exponentially more so. When you want to visit a client who is in the quarantine, no other visits can happen at the same time. This means that no families can visit, and no other attorneys can visit clients in the other rooms. The quarantined person has to be brought to visitation alone, and once they are back in their “pod”, the visitation room they were in has to be “disinfected.” (We are fairly sure that this just means wiping everything down with a Lysol wipe, but it still takes a full 30 minutes). This leads to an average wait time of approximately 3 hours to see a single client. A week or so ago, volunteers who arrived any time after noon were told that they probably would not be able to get in to see anyone before 5PM.
The quarantined detainees have to wear face masks, and sometimes rubber gloves. The masks make it harder to hear them through the already subpar phones, and it also means that the guards are monitoring your visit a lot more closely to make sure that the client keeps the mask on. An African client of mine had drawn a face on his mask, with spiraling nostrils and a mouth full of bared teeth. (Add that to the list of images I wish someone could capture on film.) In the middle of a visit, a guard came in and told him he was “off quarantine” and could take his mask and gloves off. I almost asked to keep the mask with the ferocious teeth, but common sense prevailed.
In the beginning of the quarantine, I was also told twice that I would have to talk to the HSA (Health Services Administrator). The first time, the HSA shook my hand, introduced herself, and gave me a little spiel about the dangers of exposure to varicella (the virus which causes the chickenpox) to unvaccinated adults and pregnant women. The whole talked smelled a little like a “mea culpa” for the inconveniences of the quarantine: “we know this is an enormous pain, but think of the dangers!!! This is for your own good!” I smiled, listened politely, thanked her, and went back to my visit. The second time I was told I would have to wait to talk to the HSA. I explained that I had already spoken with her less than a week ago. The guards at the front desk seemed unconvinced. So, I waited. And waited. And waited. Maybe an hour later, the HSA appeared in the waiting room, took one look at me, and said, “oh, I’ve already talked to her. She’s okay.” I then waited nearly another hour for a visit that took approximately ten minutes. I simply needed some client signatures.
There is also an intense peer pressure component to the quarantine. The first time I finished a visit with a quarantined client, the guard working the front desk announced to an entirely full waiting room (mostly women and children) that I had been the reason they were waiting and, “now that she’s done, you can all go in.” I was, of course, mortified, and guilt stricken to have made all of these people wait even longer to see their loved ones, despite the fact that it was not actually my fault. Another time, Erin and I were in the waiting room, knowing that our extern was visiting someone on quarantine. As more and more families (again, mostly women traveling alone with tired, cranky, and bored children) started to pile up, the more and more we felt inclined to go tell the extern to wrap it up, or simply come back later. In the end, we abstained, of course, because that quarantined guy is entitled to all the time he needs with his legal team.
Finally, and perhaps most alarming, people who are in the quarantine are not being allowed to go to court. Their hearings are being continued, or their lawyers are being asked to waive the client’s presence. In a place where one of the greatest enemies is “detention fatigue”, even a small delay can mean the difference between someone winning at least their custody case and getting out, or getting too fatigued and simply choosing to abandon their case in order to get out via deportation. (Sidenote: even this often doesn’t work as planned. The government can take weeks or months to actually get someone back to their country, even if they’ve been ordered removed by a judge.) The quarantine continuances are being set weeks or even months away, seemingly with no end in sight.
After alerting folks up the food chain from us at SPLC to the multitudinous difficulties the quarantine has created with regards to access to counsel, the higher-ups have been in touch with the higher-ups at Stewart, in hopes to create a work-around. The current proposal is allowing us to schedule visits with quarantined folks at a set time, so there’s not log jam created. Of course, it takes two to tango, so we’ll have to see if anyone is willing to dance.