On the morning of April 9, 24-year-old Carlos was feeling some of the typical symptoms of Covid-19: weakness, nausea, headaches, and pain in his throat. Carlos, whose name has been changed for fear of retaliation by correctional staff, is currently detained at the Stewart Detention Center, a privately run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in rural Georgia.
Other detainees felt ill too. Tension was mounting inside Stewart, one of the largest immigration jails in the country, with a capacity to hold nearly 2,000 male detainees.
Carlos was on his bed, feeling sick, when he turned to look out the window and saw a group of detainees running out a side door leading to a recreation yard. Several correctional officers were giving chase. At first, Carlos thought that there was a fire, but then he saw correctional staff use pepper spray on the detainees.
Daniel, another detainee whose name has also been changed, saw it all happen from another unit across the hall.
“People were asking for medical attention for some of the sick people in there,” Daniel said. “But because they” — the staff — “didn’t pay attention, they began protesting. They started placing sheets on the windows and doors.”
Daniel said the correctional staff began deploying gas, throwing detainees on the floor, and taking them in handcuffs to — he assumed — solitary confinement, or as he called it, “the hole.”
At Stewart, which is operated by the private prison giant CoreCivic, there is a special unit of correctional officers tasked with suppressing detainee disturbances. Akin to a SWAT team, the pepper-spraying unit is known as the Special Operations Response Team, or SORT. The SORT unit, which has not been previously reported on, is trained to use riot shields, helmets, pepper spray, and pepper-ball ammunition.
During a two-week period amid the Covid-19 pandemic, SORT officers at Stewart have used force on immigrant detainees two times, on April 9 and again on April 20.
Following each of the incidents, some members of Stewart’s SORT unit celebrated using force on migrants in their custody in multiple social media posts. The posts, in aggregate, gives a series of snapshots of the SORT team’s actions against the protesting detainees. In one social media post, a SORT officer said he shot all the detainees in sight with pepper-ball projectiles — it was, he said, “call of duty mode,” referring to a violent, first-person video game series about going to war.
Another Facebook poster purporting to be a SORT officer suggested that he shot a protesting detainee who uses a wheelchair with pepper spray, saying the immigrant “felt them mfs” — using an abbreviation for “motherfuckers.” In the same social media post, the SORT officer added, “He grabbed his face.”
The numerous social media posts exemplify the tense and complicated dynamics within the walls of the Stewart Detention Center, a migrant jail that has continually fallen under scrutiny for its alleged mistreatment of immigrants.
The posts from the SORT officers, spanning months and shared with The Intercept and WNYC’s The Takeaway, were flagged by members of Georgia Detention Watch, an activist coalition documenting conditions in ICE detention. The Intercept and The Takeaway independently verified much of the social media activity, identifying 11 CoreCivic SORT officers, along with other correctional staff at the detention facility.
Five accounts claiming to belong to SORT officers identified were responsible for the posts included in this article. In phone interviews, The Intercept and The Takeaway confirmed three of the five officers’ employment with CoreCivic, their membership in the SORT unit, and their postings to social media accounts bearing their names. The two other SORT officers responsible for the social media posts neither confirmed nor denied their employment and social media accounts but posed for pictures on the accounts dressed in SORT unit regalia and, in the case of one officer, with documentation of accolades from CoreCivic for his work.
After reaching out with a detailed description of this reporting, a spokesperson for CoreCivic said: “After you alerted us to the social media posts, eight Stewart Detention Center employees were immediately placed on administrative leave. Since then, four of those employees have been terminated. We are also continuing to cooperate fully with the investigation into this matter being conducted by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR).” The spokesperson declined to confirm any disciplinary actions in reference to particular officers’ names.
In a statement, an ICE spokesperson did not comment on the specific allegations but said such matters are referred to ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. “In general, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigate all allegations of misconduct,” the spokesperson said. “If any such allegation was to be substantiated appropriate action would be taken.”
Advocates for immigration detainees said the incidents are part of two larger problems occurring simultaneously: the threat of the coronavirus to detainees in cramped quarters and the frequent violence of disciplinary actions in immigration detention facilities like Stewart.
“For months, community members have demanded ICE protect detained immigrants from Covid-19 and release them immediately,” said Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and member of Georgia Detention Watch. “Instead, detention centers, including for-profit facilities, ramp up their use of violent, paramilitary, SWAT-like teams, such as SORT, to repress immigrants in detention centers that are speaking out about the horrendous conditions and lack of protections during this global pandemic.”
Stewart is located in southwest Georgia, in a rural area with a depressed economy and one of the state’s hot spots for the coronavirus. For some residents of the area, Stewart is a lifeline. Becoming a guard is a steady job in a region where unemployment was high even before the coronavirus crisis, not unlike the migrants on unauthorized stays in the U.S. to get work. The economic pressures — in tandem with notorious immigration enforcement policies and bloated budgets — brought the immigrants and community members into close proximity in one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the U.S., a fertile breeding ground for the virus.
“It’s just a tragedy,” said Sharon Dolovich, professor of law at UCLA who also directs the university’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Data Project, tracking confirmed cases in jails, prisons, and detention centers. “You have these two groups of people who are just desperate for a better life. And they’re playing the terrible hands they’ve been dealt. And now, this.”
Neither the guards at Stewart nor the detainees were spared from the coronavirus. The first CoreCivic staff member at Stewart tested positive for Covid-19 on March 31; in one month, the number of infected CoreCivic staff rose to 44, according to a recent court filing. ICE says there are 12 current Stewart detainees confirmed to have Covid-19.
A month ago, with cases mounting and around 1,900 people locked up in Stewart, tensions in the facility had begun to escalate, said Pedro Ramirez-Briceño, who was released in early April. (Following a judge’s order for ICE to consider releasing sick detainees, the amount of people incarcerated at Stewart had dropped to around 1,000 in early May, according to a recent court filing.)
After hearing of the coronavirus spreading to other immigration detention facilities, he and other detainees took part in a hunger and labor strike in early March, demanding better conditions and more resources to prevent the spread of the virus. But the strike action fizzled away over time, Ramirez-Briceño said.
There are around nearly 30,000 people currently in ICE custody around the U.S., and since the pandemic began, detainees in other ICE facilities have also reported the use of force in response to coronavirus-related protests. As of May 4, the agency says 606 detainees have confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. Testing in the facilities has been sparse and ICE does not release numbers in real time, so that number could be much higher. On April 20, a federal judge ordered ICE to consider releasing high-risk detainees.
In the month of April, there were five 911 emergency calls from the facility, according to call logs obtained by The Intercept and The Takeaway. Although it is not confirmed whether calls were coronavirus-related, four of those calls were for respiratory problems, a common symptom of Covid-19.
The Intercept and The Takeaway spoke to eight people currently detained in Stewart, six family members of those in detention, and two formerly detained people who were released after being involved in protests and a use-of-force incident. Although the current detainees called from various units in the facility, they all paint a similar picture: More and more people are feeling symptoms associated with the virus and desperation is growing, with between 60 and 90 people per unit.
“If they don’t want us in this country, they should at least deport us to our countries, so we’re not getting sick inside this place.”
All the detainees The Intercept and The Takeaway spoke with allege delays in accessing medical attention. A man from El Salvador, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals, was feeling ill and said he was required to fill out a paper request to see a medic. Five days later, when he called The Intercept and The Takeaway, he still had not been seen.
On the day that Daniel, one of the witnesses to the SORT officers’ use of force on April 9, contacted The Intercept and The Takeaway, he said a Guatemalan detainee in his unit had just been taken for more medical attention after fainting for the third time that day. The second time Daniel called, he reported another detainee, who was complaining of symptoms and feeling weak, was removed from his unit.
Alex from Honduras, whose name has been changed for fear of retaliation, said tensions continue to rise in the facility. Oscar Martinez, a Mexican man from another unit, said he was feeling throat pain, feverish, weakness, and chills.
Martinez said, “If they don’t want us in this country, they should at least deport us to our countries, so we’re not getting sick inside this place.”
Three of the detainees interviewed by The Intercept and The Takeaway — Alex, Daniel, and Martinez — all believe that detainees who show severe symptoms end up in the solitary confinement unit, or “the hole.” In a Monday court filing, Stewart Warden Russell Washburn said, “When detainees at SDC appeared symptomatic, they were moved to medical isolation” — though it is unclear if the solitary confinement unit was used for medical isolation.
ICE and CoreCivic declined to provide answers to questions about placing symptomatic detainees in solitary confinement units, but a CoreCivic spokesperson defended the private prison company’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. “Since even before any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in our facilities, we have rigorously followed the guidance of local, state and federal health authorities, as well as our government partners,” the CoreCivic spokesperson said in a statement. “We have responded to this unprecedented situation appropriately, thoroughly and with care for the safety and well-being of those entrusted to us and our communities.”
As The Intercept and The Takeaway have previously reported, Stewart has a troubled track record of solitary confinement practices: Two men with mental illness killed themselves in the timespan of 14 months in 2017 and 2018.
With the pandemic at hand, family members and advocates have had difficulty reaching people in solitary. “We’ve had some trouble being in touch with people, both times that there has been reports of some sort of incident or some sort of use of force against the detained people who were trying to speak out peacefully for their rights,” said Erin Argueta, lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative.
On April 7, the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with other organizations, filed a lawsuit seeking the immediate release of people with preexisting health conditions from Stewart.
The facility normally runs on detainee labor, but with units in quarantine, correctional staff were tasked with making meals. According to Argueta, this led to detainees being fed very little food at irregular times, sparking the April 20 protest. Detainees refused to eat the provided food and demanded better provisions. As the protest went on, SORT officers responded with pepper spray and pepper-ball guns.
Later that night, SORT officer Tyriq Key joked on social media that the detainees were so hungry, they were “eating that spray.”
The SORT officers at Stewart are CoreCivic correctional staff, who then change into all-black uniforms with thick protective gear. Their SWAT-like uniforms include pepper spray and pepper-ball guns dangling from their belts. Promotional videos, produced when CoreCivic was still known by its former name, Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, show SORT officers trained in using large shields and batons.
The SORT team is not unique to Stewart.
“CoreCivic operates their immigration detention facilities just like they operate their prisons; there’s really no difference. And many prisons have tactics teams, SWAT-type teams inside their facilities,” said Dolovich, the UCLA law professor. “In every prison, when there’s a perceived emergency that requires rapid intervention, there are a certain set of prison officials trained to participate in these SWAT teams.”
According to a 2008 CCA manual, these types of units were created after the 1971 Attica prison riots, “modeled after police SWAT teams and military commando units, such as the Army Green Beret Special Forces and Navy Seal Teams.”
“SORT teams are specially trained to use ‘mind over matter’ in de-escalating situations, using CCA’s ‘talk down, rather than take down’ philosophy,” the manual adds.
Dolovich said such philosophies often don’t hold sway in the real world. “Force should never be the first resort; it should be a last resort, after you’ve tried all available nonforceful responses,” she said. “But, in fact, that’s not what happens. What happens, often, is that force is used as a first resort.”
Before the pandemic, the SORT unit in Stewart had been activated as recently as 2019. On September 11, 2019, a group of around 60 Cuban asylum-seekers staged a peaceful protest in Stewart’s recreation yard, refusing to enter the facility until they received word from ICE on their requests for parole.
Reinier Rodriguez Bombino took part in the protest. He told The Intercept and The Takeaway that the protesting asylum-seekers used a marker to write their demands on bedsheets, then snuck the sheets out in their clothes to display in the yard. As the next morning rolled around, SORT officers began moving in on the asylum-seekers.
“They were dressed in all black, with vests, knee pads, helmets, with weapons, with everything — like they were prepared for anything,” Rodriguez said, “even though we were always clear — always clear — that everything was peaceful and we were not going to resist.”
The SORT officers began deploying tear gas and fired either rubber bullets or pepper balls at the asylum-seekers. Rodriguez said he was shot by a projectile in the back of his thigh. Days after the protest, he was placed in solitary confinement, then transferred to another facility in Georgia.
What happened to Rodriguez is a pattern, advocates said. “Very quickly and quietly, in a way, most of the people involved in the protest were immediately placed in segregation,” said Argueta, the Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, referring to solitary confinement. “A lot of them were transferred out of Stewart. The facility did its best to silence it.”
On September 12, after the officers used force, Jaraivius Sullivan, a Stewart SORT officer, posted on Facebook: “If u see me cheesing just kno I had a good day at work.” When someone asked what he did, he replied: “had my way.”
In October, Project South, an Atlanta-based social justice group, along with dozens of other advocacy organizations, submitted a complaint regarding the September use-of-force incident to Georgia lawmakers and U.S. senators.
In the aftermath of the crackdowns on the coronavirus-related protests at Stewart, CoreCivic guards again posted messages celebrating the SORT unit.
On April 9, hours after Daniel witnessed officers pepper-spraying detainees, a Facebook account claiming to be from a CoreCivic employee on the SORT team praised other SORT officers on Facebook for their quick action. In the comments, the officer shared a photo of his boots with laughing emojis, saying that he “was ready to stomp and drag today,” referring to a military- and riot-police marching cadence.
“It is abominable for the Stewart guards to use pepper spray and other aggressive means of crushing the protest by detained immigrants who are subjected to imprisonment at this deadly facility in the midst of a pandemic.
After the April 9 incident, another SORT officer, Quantavious Lewis, shared a video of a man purportedly in Mexico being restrained. Another man pulls down the apparent arrestee’s underwear and begins beating his bare behind with a stick. The man shrieks and squirms, while the person behind the camera laughs. Posting a series of laughing emojis, Lewis shared the video on Facebook with his own caption: “Next time they activate Sort.”
Advocates for immigrant rights were taken aback by the social media postings. “It is abominable for the Stewart guards to use pepper spray and other aggressive means of crushing the protest by detained immigrants who are subjected to imprisonment at this deadly facility in the midst of a pandemic,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director of Project South. “All immigrants detained at Stewart should be freed immediately, and ICE and the private prison corporation should be held to account for their abusive conduct.”
After the April 20 use-of-force incident, Sullivan and Lewis, along with fellow SORT officers Tyriq Key and another officer began sharing comments and more jokes. Stitching together their social media posts paints a picture of what took place that night. (Lewis, Sullivan, and Key confirmed their employment and social media accounts to The Intercept and The Takeaway, but declined to comment on the record for this story, and the other officer did not respond for a request for comment. The account of the self-proclaimed SORT officer who praised other SORT officers after the April 9 incident blocked this reporter on Facebook, after The Intercept and The Takeaway asked for a request for comment.)
When the food-related protest escalated, detainees began throwing toilet water and food at the guards, according a social media posting. As the officers attempted to end the protest, Lewis slipped on water and fell, according to his posting. Lewis then said he got up and “went to shooting whatever was n his path” with the pepper-ball gun — then made the “Call of Duty” reference.
Another Facebook account claiming to belong to a SORT officer shared that he “walked in that mf pod letting the OC go,” referring to oleoresin capsicum, the active ingredient in pepper spray and pepper balls. He wrote that he “had a can in each hand.” At the moment of the commotion, according to the Facebook post, was when the detainee in a wheelchair “jumped out the chair into the room.” The Facebook posting recounted that the man in the wheelchair “felt them mfs. He grabbed his face.”
A recent court filing in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit says the man continued to urinate blood 10 days after the use-of-force incident.
As Lewis summarized it in another posting: “they learned they lesson fasho.”