The following is a letter from a group of Durham elected officials who recently visited Stewart Detention Center, a privately run immigration detention facility where many people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Carolinas are held. Just last month, a Raleigh man died from apparent suicide while being held in solitary confinement at Stewart.

Dear Durham Community,

On Monday, August 13th Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, County Commissioner Brenda Howerton, School Board Member Natalie Beyer, and Durham City Council Members Vernetta Alston, Javiera Caballero, and DeDreana Freeman visited Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA. The trip was organized with the help of Congressman G.K. Butterfield’s office. This was an effort for Durham’s local elected officials to have a better understanding of and more information about the detention and/or deportation process that many of our residents and families have experienced. Our delegation drove over 8 hours each way to Lumpkin, Georgia in order to observe immigration court, tour the facility, and have a Q&A session with ICE officials from the Atlanta field office and CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) employees, including the warden of the detention center.

Here are some of the facts we learned that day and our observations from our tour and court observation.


  • Stewart Detention Center is located in Stewart County, Georgia, about 150 miles south of Atlanta. The population of Lumpkin is about 2,000 residents (not including the detainees), 70% Black, and has a median household income of $22,315.
  • The remote location of Stewart makes it difficult for detainees to access legal counsel and for families to visit.
  • At full capacity, the facility can hold slightly more than 2,000 detainees. On August 13th, there were just over 1,700 immigrant men aged 18 and older detained there.
  • Stewart was originally built by CoreCivic as a correctional facility for the state of Georgia, but it was later determined that the state did not need it. Instead, CoreCivic converted it to an immigrant detention facility. This story is illustrative of the ways in which private industries that profit from incarceration are shifting into immigrant detention as prison populations have decreased.
  • Most detainees stay in minimum-security bunk rooms with over 60 men and shared open public toilets and showers. Those who are deemed a security risk are housed in individual cells and let out for meals and recreation. There is also a solitary confinement/protective custody area where detainees are locked in 23 hours a day. These conditions are functionally identical to prison and unsuitable for civil detainees. We were allowed to see much of the compound, including the solitary confinement unit, where each cell was an approximately 8’X12’ room. We were told that these cells are similar to the non-solitary individual cells.
  • The men wear color-coded uniforms. This color system indicates the level of crime they have been charged with. The vast majority of the detainees wear dark blue and tan uniforms meaning they have not committed any crime, but were detained at the border or elsewhere and merely do not have official permission to be in the United States.
  • While the majority of the detainees appeared to be Latino, there were also Indian, African, Asian, and Middle-Eastern detainees. We only saw one white non-Latino detainee. We believe that the 250-300 men that we saw in the facility are a representative sample of those who are detained there.
  • While we were there, at least 4 detainees were on suicide watch. Two suicides have occurred there in the last two years. There are two licensed clinical social workers who provide counseling, but no on-site psychiatrist.
  • The guards and warden shared that there are rarely fights in the facility and guards are armed only with a chemical spray.
  • We were not permitted to speak to any detainees or bring cameras or recording devices into the facility. The employees we spoke to did not know whether any detainees from Durham or the Triangle area were present.
  • ICE officials confirmed that after the recent court interventions prohibiting family separations, several fathers from Stewart have been reunited with their children.
  • CoreCivic has a per-bed contract with ICE to house detainees at Stewart. Stewart Detention facility is the largest employer in the county and provided more than half of the county’s entire annual budget as of 2011.
  • CoreCivic’s PAC (political action committee) contributed almost $300k in political donations in the 2016 election cycle, including $30,000 each to the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Over 90% of their political contributions are to Republicans.


  • Of the 13 men in the courtroom during our court observation, only one had legal representation.
  • During this court session, nine men asked for “voluntary departure” or an immediate deportation, even a father of a nine-month-old US citizen child. They all waived their rights to appeal, even if they had US-citizen children or spouses, had lived in the US for over a decade, or had other compelling reasons to try and stay in the country. Many of them stated repeatedly that they just wanted to get out of Stewart Detention Center.
  • The judge was presiding over the cases via video screen and was not actually present in the courtroom. The court proceedings moved very quickly and were often confusing, and it was sometimes unclear how much the detainees understood.
  • While the Spanish-speaking court interpreter was very professional, it was the only language where in-person interpretation was provided, telephone interpreters were used for other languages and for employees who did not speak Spanish.
  • Although the majority of men spoke little English, we did not observe any bilingual employees other than the court interpreter.

On our drive back, we discussed what we had seen and what we wanted to share about our experience. Our first step will be to have honest and difficult conversations with other elected and appointed leaders both in Durham and surrounding communities about the role local law enforcement and the judicial system play in the detainment of Durham and other NC residents. Beyond these conversations we envision the creation and implementation of programs to limit the detention of our residents. We believe this process should be led and designed by those in our community most impacted by immigration policies. Some practical solutions could be:

  • Diversion programs for Durham residents that are aligned with federal immigration law, many of our current programs do not benefit non-citizens, and the collateral consequence penalizes non-citizens with the harsh consequence of being placed in removal proceedings
  • An aligned comprehensive language access plan across all levels of local government.
  • Driving safety programs that could help residents attain a local certification for driving similar to or even an expanded version of the program in Orange County.
  • The development of a rideshare program and targeted outreach through partner organizations to decrease DUI rates, but also ensure there are safe alternatives of travel. The expansion of our mass-transit system also increases options for travel.

Local government institutions have already initiated many of these ideas, and their expansion would be a benefit to all Durham residents. Our ultimate goal is that none of our families, friends, or neighbors end up in immigration detention facilities because of local policy or practice either at the city, county, or local judicial level. This work will not be easy, but for Durham to be the inclusive community we aspire to be we must change our current practices. We believe we can accomplish this, and we will look to all Durham residents to help us achieve this vision.