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Immigrants detained in Georgia to get better access to counsel after SPLC complaint

In response to a complaint by the SPLC, the for-profit company that operates the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia has installed a long-delayed videoconferencing system so that detained immigrants can speak to their attorneys.

Earlier this year, the SPLC and a coalition of civil rights activists and legal experts notified government officials that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was denying detainees access to attorneys in violation of its federal contract.

The video teleconferencing system, which was installed last month and is planned to go live today, will help ensure the detainees’ constitutional right to counsel is respected by allowing free, confidential sessions between attorneys and their clients held at the detention center, which is located 150 miles from Atlanta in rural Lumpkin.

The system should have been installed about two years ago at the facility, one of the nation’s largest immigrant detention centers. CCA was required to install the system 60 days after its contract to operate the prison took effect on Sept. 29, 2014.

“While the delay is inexplicable, we are delighted that the video teleconferencing system has finally been installed,” said SPLC Deputy Legal Director Lisa Graybill. “Access to legal counsel is a fundamental right that neither the government nor a private company like CCA can violate.”

Currently, 94 percent of detainees at the facility do not have legal representation – one of the lowest rates of attorney representation at any of the country’s immigrant detention centers. Without attorneys, they face staggering odds in immigration court. Judges reject more pleas for relief at the Stewart Immigration Court than at any other immigration court in the United States.

“This is a great victory for detainees,” said Eunice Cho, SPLC staff attorney. “For far too many people at the Stewart Detention Center, legal representation has been out of reach. We hope this technology will bring much-needed change.”

The new video teleconferencing system uses computers equipped with a webcam, microphone, speakers and Skype software. The Stewart Detention Center is the first immigrant detention center in the country to use the technology to put detainees in contact with attorneys. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is viewing the system as a pilot program that may be expanded to other detention centers. A guide outlining how the system will be used can be found here.

Without the video technology, lawyers had to speak to clients in person through Plexiglas barriers on telephones, which were often broken. Some lawyers reported harassment by detention center staffers and said administrators refused to schedule attorney calls or appointments.

In March, a coalition of legal experts and civil rights groups, including the SPLC, raised concerns about the detainees’ access to attorneys in a letter to ICE, the Stewart County Commission and CCA. It described how detention center staffers have arbitrarily delayed or denied meetings between attorneys and clients.