August 6, 2018
Today was my first day at the Southeastern Immigrant Freedom Initiative (“SIFI”, pronounced “sci fi”), and this morning was orientation for all volunteers.
This morning’s group was comprised of six other volunteers, all of whom are here in Lumpkin for one week. Two of them are female law students (one from Harvard, one from the California Western School of Law) and four are men, three of whom are retired or winding up their practices in preparation for retirement. The full time staff consists of two people: Matt, the Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney assigned to Lumpkin, and Monica, the Project Coordinator and jack-of-all-trades.
Orientation not only provided helpful information about what the expected duties of volunteers would be day-to-day, but also included information about the Stewart Detention Center itself. Stewart Detention Center is owned and operated by the private prison company CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, and is still located on the aptly and unambiguously-named CCA Road. The facility houses 1900+ men and trans women, and has only three (3) no-contact attorney meeting rooms. So, even as a cadre of seven, we could only see three clients at a time when we went to the facility in the afternoon.
In April of 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed two lawsuits against the Stewart Detention Center: one to do with labor conditions for the detainees, and the other about visitation conditions and client access for attorneys. We were told to expect long wait times (one of the walls of the office has a construction paper list, much like a child’s chore sheet, listing record wait times, some close to four hours), and arbitrary rules imposed inconsistently by CCA staff. These rules include everything from not being permitted to bring novels into the facility (cell phones are unsurprisingly banned, leaving little to defray the boredom of many hours of waiting), to only being permitted to bring as many business cards as the number of clients you have on your visitation list. Seeing two clients? Only two business cards allowed, otherwise you’re accused of impermissibly soliciting business. Each file and notebook are carefully shaken one by one to reveal any possible contraband.
Despite the textbook arbitrary and capricious enforcement of CoreCivic rules, the first item on the list of “Do’s and Don’ts” at Stewart is to be as kind as possible to the staff. Monica made the point that, just because these people work for the enemy, they themselves are not the enemy. Stewart, GA is the seventh poorest county in the entire United States, with a per capita income of $21,677. The lone restaurant in downtown Lumpkin (the closest town) is currently for sale, and more storefronts are empty than not. A quick Google search reveals an estimated salary for a detention officer in Lumpkin to be in the neighborhood of $34,000. So, while it’s easy to want to dismiss and deride the CoreCivic employees as instrumentalities of the machine you’re there to fight, it’s good to remember that the detainees aren’t the only ones being taken advantage of by the for-profit prison system.
Tomorrow, I go to my first court observation, and hope to complete the client screening interview I started this afternoon which was cut short by the end of visitation (5pm SHARP).