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‘Akin to Torture’: For-profit immigrant prison singles out Black men after peaceful protest

Following a peaceful rally protesting the living conditions and abusive treatment at a rural, privately operated immigrant prison in southern Georgia, guards selected three Black men to punish, forcing them to spend a month in isolation.

The men were ordered to spend 32 days in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. One man — Garsumo Dorley, 34 — was sentenced to an additional 22 days after asking to see his psychiatrist, leaving him in segregation for a total of 54 days.

“It’s like being an animal in a cage,” said Dorley, a native of Liberia. “That didn’t sit right with me at all. What did I do to deserve this? What can I do in a cage? I don’t know; I’ve been through a lot, but that’s at the top of it.”

Locked up alone in a bright, concrete cell with a heavy metal door, Dorley had nothing to do. Fluorescent lighting shined most of the day, which made sleeping difficult.

While in segregation at Folkston ICE Processing Center — operated by the for-profit prison corporation The GEO Group — Dorley said he was also assaulted by a guard. He filed a grievance, but guards simply responded with threats like, “It’s on.”

Another man, Michael Dufay, suffered an asthma attack and was denied an inhaler, despite repeated pleas, when the men were locked out in the sun after the protest. Dufay’s name has been changed in this story to protect his identity.

Maura Finn, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), which provides free legal service for immigrants detained in facilities controlled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said the treatment was nothing short of abuse.

“These men — Black men — were dehumanized simply for asking to be treated and spoken to with respect,” Finn said. “Dorley and Dufay were punished in a way akin to torture, especially for those suffering from mental illness. ICE’s refusal to help Dufay or provide medical assistance was not only egregious but dangerous. Sadly, this alarming abuse of individuals in ICE custody is the rule rather than the exception.”

In fact, another ICE facility in Georgia — Irwin County Detention Center, also privately operated — was closed in May 2021 after human rights groups exposed medical abuse against migrant women and other abuses as well. And earlier this month, the SPLC and other human rights organizations filed an administrative complaint against Stewart Detention Center, also in Georgia, alleging a pattern of sexual assault by a male nurse and retaliation against women who reported it.

Inhumane treatment

The protest at Folkston took place on April 1. Dorley and Dufay were among 15 men who sat in the yard while a peaceful rally took place outside the facility’s fences.

Afterward, the men seated on the lawn considered returning inside. Instead, they refused to leave after a guard with a reputation for demeaning immigrants began to insult them. Then they were locked out for nearly three hours in the hot sun and denied food and water.

On April 17, a five-person “extraction team” went to Dorley’s cell, even after he told the guards he would willingly go to solitary confinement. Dorley said the team entered his room, slammed the door and tackled him.

“I tried to tell them I would go with them, but they wouldn’t listen,” Dorley said. “They twisted my arms, cuffed my wrists and ankles. Afterward, I was bruised all over, I couldn’t open my jaw.”

A doctor later diagnosed Dorley with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, a problem with the joint that connects the jawbone to the skull.

‘I could die’

Dufay and Dorley suspect that anti-Black racism is at the heart of why they were singled out.

“When [the guards] punish people, they punish people like me, a Black man,” Dufay said. “Everybody talks to the officers, but if you’re Black, you get written up and taken to solitary, just like that.”

For Dorley, it has been hard to cope with the constant barrage of racist insults that guards hurl at him.

“I don’t know if this is a Black thing or what, but the way people talk to you in here is disgusting,” Dorley said. “We should all treat each other with respect and care. But the guards talk to you any way they want.”

The facility is also rife with threats to the safety of the people held there.

“The food they give us is spoiled,” Dufay said. “The milk is spoiled. The rice they serve, they often cover it in gravy to hide that it is spoiled. There is mold on the walls and in the air vents. There is no sanitation going on in there. If we have white officers, they talk to us like we are animals. They have the nastiest stuff to say to us, which is why we stayed in the yard.”

Indeed, a recent report from the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General details how the immigrant prison didn’t meet standards for facility conditions, medical care, grievances and segregation, among other problems. In addition, Folkston has compromised the health, safety and rights of detained individuals by exposing them to unsanitary conditions, such as torn mattresses; water leaks; mold growth and water damage; mold and debris in the ventilation system; and inoperable toilets.

Further, the report notes that ICE inconsistently responds to requests and grievances. And when COVID-19 hit, Folkston didn’t begin administering vaccines until April 2021, months after the vaccine became available.

“If someone in there got COVID-19, I could die,” Dufay said. “There’s no sanitizer, no bleach, nothing you can use to clean the place properly. It tells me that they don’t care about us or what we’ve got going on.”

The Golden Rule

Before he was detained, Dorley lived in Atlanta for 12 years doing event marketing. He loved his job, but he’s been locked up for 10 months.

Dorley and his parents fled Liberia in 2010, due to continuing violence following the country’s long civil war. His 8-year-old son, his girlfriend, his six siblings and his parents all live in the U.S.

What keeps Dorley sane, he said, is his family. They know the real Dorley — the father, the son, the brother, the friend.

“I know none of this will define the person I am,” he said. “But I’m not a number. I’m a student. I go to church. I work. I’m an honest person. I pay my taxes. I’m not a bad person; I just want to live my life peacefully. I love people. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I don’t want anyone to hurt me. Be around me for a little bit of time, and you’ll know who I am.”

The SPLC’s Maura Finn said that despite all he has been through, Dorley has managed to keep his head up, but his punishment was undeserved.

“Dorley continues to advocate for himself and others,” Finn said. “He deserves to live with dignity and respect — outside of a cage.”

Dorley lives by the Golden Rule: “If you believe in God, you treat people how they should treat you,” he said.

The fact that he and two other Black men were held in solitary confinement simply for protesting — while non-Black asylum seekers who protested at the same time were not — proves that there is something “off” regarding “protocol” at Folkston.

“You can’t treat people differently,” he said. “If you want to make things fair, make an example out of everybody. But to punish only Black men? You’re showing what you are: a racist.”

Top picture: Detained immigrants play soccer behind a barbed wire fence at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, on Feb. 20, 2018. The facility was closed in May 2021 after human rights groups exposed medical abuse against migrant women and other abuses. (Credit: Reuters)