Officials at a privately run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in rural Georgia locked an immigrant detainee in solitary confinement last November as punishment for encouraging fellow detainees to stop working in a labor program that ICE says is strictly voluntary.
Shoaib Ahmed, a 24-year-old who immigrated to America to escape political persecution in Bangladesh, told The Intercept that the privately run detention center placed him in isolation for 10 days after an officer overheard him simply saying “no work tomorrow.” Ahmed said he was expressing frustration over the detention center — run by prison contractor CoreCivic — having delayed his weekly paycheck of $20 for work in the facility’s kitchen.
Those in ICE custody often work for as little as $1 per day and cannot legally be compelled to work.
Ahmed’s account adds to a growing chorus of ICE detainees who allege that they have been forced to work in for-profit ICE facilities or else risk punishment with solitary confinement — a harsh form of captivity that, if prolonged, can amount to torture. Late last month, ICE detainees at a CoreCivic-run facility in California sued the private prison contractor, alleging that they had been threatened with solitary confinement if they did not work. In October, The Intercept reported that officials had placed another detainee in solitary confinement for 30 days for “encouraging others to participate in a work stoppage” at the same privately run facility where Ahmed was disciplined, the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
CoreCivic has said that its practices of segregating detainees in individual cells are humane and has disputed the term “solitary confinement,” arguing that its harsh connotation does not apply to the publicly traded firm’s practices. “Use of the term in your coverage with regard to Stewart would give readers a false impression of the reality of restricted housing at the facility,” CoreCivic spokesperson Jonathan Burns said in an email.
But over the course of two interviews with The Intercept over a fuzzy detention center phone line, Ahmed used rudimentary English to describe being subjected to the isolating conditions of solitary confinement as it is generally understood. “The room is at all times locked,” Ahmed said. “If you talk, the sound does not go outside. And nobody comes to talk with us.”
“Sometimes I think I will be mentally sick,” Ahmed said of his time in isolation. “I feel pain in my head.”
In addition to severe isolation, Ahmed spoke of being subjected to restrictive treatment in segregation that might be more expected for a violent and volatile criminal than for an immigration detainee under punishment for encouraging a work stoppage.
Once a day, detention center officers would handcuff Ahmed and escort him outdoors for an hour in a recreation yard — which he described as a “cage” for one person. Three times a week, Ahmed and other detainees in solitary confinement were given the opportunity to shower. This meant being guided in handcuffs from his isolation cell to an individual shower room. “They push you into the shower room and then open the handcuffs,” Ahmed said, adding: “You take a shower and after that, you come back in your room. Then they put you back in the room. When you enter the room again, they open the handcuffs.”
Ahmed said that because no one outside his room could hear him talk at a regular volume, his only opportunity for human interaction would often be to shout out, though he was prohibited from raising his voice — an infraction that would only cause his sentence in isolation to be extended. “Sometimes I think my head is not working, and I think I want to loudly call them: ‘Release me. Please, take me to some open site,’” Ahmed recalled. “Sometimes I think the segregation will kill me.”
Burns, the CoreCivic spokesperson, provided no specifics in response to questions about Ahmed’s treatment and asserted that the firm strictly adheres to national detention standards. “Providing a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to our care is our top priority, and we work in close coordination with our partners at ICE to ensure the well-being of the detainees at Stewart Detention Center,” Burns said. Burns also provided a list of amenities made available to detainees in solitary confinement, which includes access to the law library, meals, the facility barber shop, mail, shaving, pay phones, and visitation “without mechanical restraints.”
After landing in Bolivia in the spring of 2016, Ahmed began an arduous, 3,000-mile journey by land to the U.S. border. He spent six weeks making his way through jungles in South and Central America, where Ahmed said he had been robbed of everything he carried. Upon his arrival at the Texas border that August, federal authorities arrested Ahmed and a group of several other Bangladeshi immigrants, he said. “We didn’t see the police coming,” Ahmed told me. “I cross Panama Jungle, Colombian jungle, Peru jungle, and I come into the United States to save my life. But when I come, I come to Stewart Detention Center.”
ICE provided The Intercept with few specifics regarding Ahmed’s case but stated that the “use of restrictive housing in ICE detention facilities is exceedingly rare, but at times necessary, to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in a facility.” ICE has said that, apart from personal housekeeping, immigrant detainees work only on a voluntary basis.
When Ahmed was placed in the Stewart isolation cell, he had been locked in ICE detention for well over a year. While his prolonged time in captivity represented hardship for Ahmed, his presence offered a source of cheap labor for CoreCivic. Ahmed said that he worked for 50 cents per hour as a cook in the dining hall kitchen primarily to afford long-distance calls to his family in Bangladesh.
In recent years, current and former ICE detainees have filed class-action lawsuits alleging forced labor against private prison contractors in Washington state, California, and Colorado. Across the country, detainees and advocates have said that the ICE contractors used solitary confinement as a cudgel to force work, and allege that the for-profit facility operators are profiting off the bonded labor.
“These big corporations are circumventing the traditional labor market,” said Lydia Wright, an attorney at the Burns Charest law firm who represents current and former ICE detainees suing CoreCivic in California. “If they weren’t requiring detainees to work for $1 per day, they would have to hire cooks and janitors at minimum wage.”
In an October response to a suit from detainees in Colorado, major private prison contractor GEO Group appeared to echo this point. “Were a court to conclude that GEO must pay thousands of detainees a minimum wage, it would significantly affect the prices that GEO would have charge for its services,” stated a GEO Group court filing. The Colorado class-action suit, which demands that detainees be paid minimum wage for their labor, “poses a potentially catastrophic risk to GEO’s ability to honor its contracts with the federal government,” the firm stated in a separate filing.
One obstacle such suits against ICE’s private contractors may face: Many of the immigrant plaintiffs are only fleetingly in the country before often being deported, making it potentially difficult, for instance, to find former detainees who may be entitled to back wages.
When I last spoke with Ahmed in late November, he said he had lost his case and expected to be deported back to Bangladesh in the coming weeks. When I asked if he could call me from his home country, he couldn’t make a commitment. “If I go back to Bangladesh, I don’t know where I will go,” Ahmed said. “Maybe they will put me in jail, or maybe they will force me to leave the country again.”
According to ICE’s online detainee locator, Ahmed remains housed at Stewart Detention Center.