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SPLC demands access to detainees, challenges barriers to legal representation at immigrant detention center in Georgia

The policies and procedures at a private, for-profit immigrant detention center in Georgia are violating the due process rights of detainees by forcing them to wait hours to see their attorneys in one of only three meeting rooms at the facility that can house 1,900 detainees, the Southern Poverty Law Center told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the facility’s operator CoreCivic in a letter sent today.

The Stewart Detention Center – one of the nation’s largest immigrant detention facilities – requires attorneys to meet in rooms where they are separated from their clients by a safety glass barrier and, when using an interpreter, must shout through a slot to be heard. Immigrant detainees are civil detainees, and their detention is supposed to be administrative – not punitive, which is the case with criminal detainees.

Attorneys are also barred from bringing electronic devices, such as laptops and tablets, into the visitation room – a prohibition that severely inhibits their ability to provide effective legal counsel and is not found at many other facilities. The prohibition, among other things, makes it impossible to access translation services by phone or other electronic devices, preventing interpretation for non-English speaking clients when interpreters are not available at the facility in rural Lumpkin, which is operated by the private prison company formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America, CoreCivic.

“We have attorneys ready and willing to provide assistance to immigrants, but these needless limitations prevent them from doing their job,” said Dan Werner, director of the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). “No lawyer – and especially lawyers volunteering their time – should have to wait hours for one of three meeting rooms serving 1,900 detained immigrants.

“Providing counsel should not mean yelling in the rooms because of the safety glass between you and your client or struggling to communicate with your client in his language.”

The SPLC demands a number of reforms, including a maximum wait time of 30 minutes, more appropriate meeting spaces and an end to the prohibition on electronic devices. It asked that all stakeholders work together to resolve the issues without court involvement, but warned that it will pursue other legal remedies, if the matter is not satisfactorily resolved.

The letter comes after an April 10 meeting between SPLC attorneys and detention center management about the policies did not result in substantive changes.

“It is well-established that immigrants have the right to counsel, but CoreCivic and ICE have made that right unduly difficult to exercise for detainees at the Stewart Detention Center,” Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “We have put CoreCivic and ICE on notice of the barriers we’ve encountered.”

The SPLC launched the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative at the Stewart Detention Center earlier this year in response to the erosion of immigrants’ due process rights. SIFI enlists and trains lawyers and attorney-supervised law students to provide pro bono counsel to immigrants held at the detention center.

As the SPLC’s letter notes, a recent national study found that only 6 percent of detainees at the detention center were represented by counsel between 2007 and 2012 – far below the 37 percent representation rate of immigrants in removal proceedings nationwide. Immigrants who are represented are approximately 20 times more likely to succeed in their cases.

Beginning in August, SIFI will expand to other detention centers throughout the Southeast. When fully implemented, it will be the largest detention center-based deportation defense project in the country.