The first full day that Maria, an asylum-seeker from Venezuela, was in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, she was sent for a routine medical screening. After waiting for about two hours in a reception room, at around 2 p.m. a male nurse called her name. Maria stood up and walked past him, into the small exam room. The nurse greeted her jovially, followed her in, and then closed the door. It was New Year’s Eve, 2021.
Over the next approximately 30 minutes, according to a letter detailing her and other women’s allegations submitted to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, or CRCL, the nurse inappropriately touched Maria’s breasts, rubbed his penis against her hand, made repeated uncomfortable remarks, resisted her attempts to push away his hand, and blocked her from leaving. She told him to stop multiple times and asked to leave the examination room.
The nurse did not let her leave, according to the complaint to CRCL. At one point he told Maria, “Me encantas,” or Spanish for, roughly, “I’m crazy about you.” He led her to another office, where he complimented her, told her that he needed to check her menstrual cycle, and insisted on seeing her vaginal discharge, the complaint reads. After Maria insisted again that she wanted to leave, the nurse eventually let her go and told her to tell her friend to come see him as well.
“I was shaking, I was scared, I wanted to leave,” Maria told The Intercept. “It was the worst day of my life.” After she reported the incident, she said, she was accused of lying and was threatened with retaliation for reporting the incident.
Maria is one of four women who spoke out about sexual assault and harassment by the nurse in the complaint. Three other women, who are also asylum-seekers, reported similar treatment in the complaint.
The nurse “has repeatedly taken advantage of his position as a medical professional to isolate women at Stewart in curtained-off medical examination rooms, force or coerce them into giving him access to private parts of their body without medical justification or need, and [assault] them during his ‘medical exams,’” the CRCL complaint reads.
The allegations of sexual assault and harassment are part of a broader series of troubling complaints levied by women who have been detained in the facility, raising a concern that there is a pattern of medical neglect and abusive conditions.
The nurse did not respond to multiple phone calls or a mailed list of questions. CoreCivic, the private prison company that runs Stewart and is the nurse’s employer, said in a statement that it completed an administrative investigation in January after two women reported allegations of sexual assault by the nurse. According to CoreCivic, its investigation found that one report was “unsubstantiated” and that the other was “unfounded.” ICE did not provide a comment by the time of this story’s publication.
Stewart Detention Center has long had a reputation for having the worst conditions in the U.S. immigration detention system. A remote and isolated facility with the highest death rate of all immigration jails in the last five years, Stewart is known as the “black hole” of the immigration detention network. It has been the focus of stories about abusive guards, exploitative labor practices, and migrants driven to suicide. Until recently, Stewart’s misery was only borne by male detainees.
That changed after the Irwin County Detention Center, a facility in Georgia that housed female immigration detainees, was partially shut down following numerous allegations of abuse and medical neglect. After the partial closure, ICE began sending female detainees to Stewart.
Stewart is known as the “black hole” of the immigration detention network.
With the arrival of women at Stewart in December 2020, a new pattern of abuse allegations is emerging. This investigation is based on internal Homeland Security records, public reports, sheriff’s department documents, emergency call records, and interviews with nearly a dozen sources. Records reviewed by The Intercept indicate that there were at least 17 sexual assault allegations in the 11-month period between May 2021 and May 2022, 11 of which allege abuse by facility staff.
Four separate women, in the CRCL complaint, are alleging sexual assault and harassment by the nurse employed at the facility. The Intercept spoke with all four of them.
Two women told The Intercept that when they initially made complaints through official channels inside the detention center, CoreCivic staff threatened them with retaliation for attempting to speak out. A Department of Homeland Security database tracking accusations, which was reviewed by The Intercept, shows two women made complaints of sexual misconduct by medical staff at Stewart during the same period covered by the letter to the CRCL.
“I’m scared,” Maria recalled, telling an official who interviewed her the day after the assault. “I’m scared, I’m scared.”
“They said I was lying,” Maria later told The Intercept. “They said I could go to prison for seven years if I filed the [internal] complaint.”
Advocates for the detained women lauded them for coming forward despite the threats and lack of consequences resulting from their previous complaints.
“We’re blown away by the bravery of these women, to open themselves up like this and tell these stories,” said Erin Argueta, lead attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. “Even when detained, and threatened with retaliation, they showed amazing bravery coming forward.”
The sexual misconduct allegations are part of a broader set of charges made by detainees and advocates of medical misconduct and abuses related to health and hygiene — allegations repeated in public records from a variety of sources that point to neglect and unhealthy conditions. Stewart has the capacity to hold nearly 2,000 detained people, but, as of June 13, it has an average daily population of 1,092.
The internal complaint database from the CRCL office, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows 30 complaints made to CRCL about Stewart between August 5, 2021, and April 13, 2022. Many of the complaints detail a lack of medical attention. Others allege rotten food, prolonged detention, and correctional staff misconduct.
In addition, 911 call records obtained by The Intercept through a public records request, from late December 2020 — when women started being held in Stewart — through late June of this year, show there were 118 emergency calls made to 911 from the facility. At least 23 calls were specified to be for detained women experiencing medical emergencies, although it could be more, since some notes from the emergency calls do not specify a gender.
According to the 911 records and interviews with women in the facility, two women have attempted suicide while in Stewart. Three women The Intercept spoke with said they witnessed or heard about suicide attempts while detained at the facility. “Many of us were really marked by seeing that,” said Diana, another asylum-seeker who, along with other detainees, witnessed one of the attempts. “Many couldn’t sleep, were depressed.”
Four women at the facility reported their experiences with the nurse to immigration attorneys and advocates, who on July 12 filed a letter of complaint to the CRCL. The complaint uses pseudonyms for the women, who are named in the complaint as Maria, Viviana, Laura, and Marta. The Intercept has confirmed the names and identities of the women and is also withholding their names out of respect for their privacy because they are victims of an alleged crime.
The complaint was co-signed by civil rights and immigrant advocacy organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, Project South, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, El Refugio, the Georgia Human Rights Clinic, and Owings MacNorlin LLC. The organizations also filed complaints against the nurse, one for each woman, to the Georgia Board of Nursing.
The Intercept reached out to ICE, CoreCivic, the Stewart County Sheriff’s Office, Homeland Security’s CRCL office, and the nurse for comment on the CRCL complaint and allegations of misconduct. In a statement, CoreCivic said the two women who reported sexual assault allegations in the facility were offered medical, mental health, and emotional support services during the administrative investigation and that they were released from the facility before the investigation was completed.
“The investigation regarding [the nurse] determined one woman’s claim was unsubstantiated, and the other was unfounded,” CoreCivic said in a statement, saying that no further allegations had emerged. “The safety, health and well-being of the individuals entrusted to our care is our top priority.”
“It is CoreCivic policy to aggressively investigate all allegations, regardless of the source, and support prosecution for those who are involved in incidents of sexual abuse,” the company said. “Alleged victims of sexual abuse will be provided a supportive and protective environment.”
The CRCL office and the Stewart County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to detailed questions.
Maria told The Intercept that after the nurse asked her to lie down, he leaned over to examine her and began rubbing his crotch against her arm. When she sat up, he told her he needed to listen to her heart first and instructed her to lift up her shirt. She reluctantly obliged, becoming increasingly nervous. The nurse said he was going to check her heart and then proceeded to touch her breasts with the stethoscope in his hand, the complaint says.
After he took her to another office, where he continued to touch her, the complaint reads, the nurse allowed her to leave, and Maria reported her experience to a CoreCivic staff member.
“I thought it was the worst that could have happened to me,” Maria said. “But the days ahead were even harder.”
In the following days, Maria describes in the complaint that she was interviewed by CoreCivic and ICE officials. According to the complaint, she says a CoreCivic official accused her of lying, and an official allegedly said she would be given “seven years in prison” if she continued with her report, also accusing her of lying. According to the CRCL complaint, a CoreCivic employee also hit the table in front of her during an interview, and, over the course of a week, “she was subjected to repeated interrogations and accusations that she was lying.”
While there are systems ostensibly in place for detained women to file internal complaints with separate ICE and DHS offices, Maria told The Intercept that the phones intended to connect women to reporting hotlines were not working.
An internal review by the Southern Poverty Law Center of detainee medical records showed the nurse was seeing patients as recently as late as May of this year.
For some medical professionals, abuses tied to the provision of medical care constitute particularly grave violations. “You go to a medical provider with a sense of trust,” said Amy Zeidan, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who has reviewed dozens of medical cases at Stewart and looked over the testimonies of the four women. “And that person completely abuses that trust.”
Laura, another woman detained in Stewart who also tells her story in the complaint, had been suffering from severe stomach pain and made multiple requests for medical attention. She said she was not seen by medical staff for a month. (She also asked to see a psychologist and was made to wait months before she was seen.) Attending to her medical request, after the monthlong wait, was the same nurse who allegedly assaulted Maria.
During the course of his examination, Laura said, the nurse put a stethoscope under her bra, touching her breasts with the stethoscope and his hands in a manner that she said deviated from past procedures she had experienced. He then told her to pull her pants down and put the stethoscope near her groin. As he touched her, he repeatedly pulled down his mask and chuckled, and she felt like he was “flirting,” she told The Intercept. She also said he looked at her in what she described as a sexually suggestive way while examining a painful bump on her leg. “The way he looked at me, it was so gross,” she said. During a second examination, she said, the nurse again instructed her to lift her shirt up and lower her pants, touching her chest and below her waist.
Documents reviewed by The Intercept show that Laura reported her allegations to at least three health care staff members, independent of each other, in early January. The medical records read that Laura was independently “evaluated by Mental Health, LIP” — a licensed independent practitioner — “and nursing staff.” Laura described her allegations in depth to all three staff members, with one even noting her fear of retaliation: “[Patient] said she did not alert security because she was afraid of getting in trouble.”
After speaking with the three health care staff members, officials were alerted of a possible violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, the complaint says. Laura said that in the days that followed, two ICE officials threatened her, saying that there would be consequences if she was lying, and, again, that she could face seven years in prison for doing so. CoreCivic officials also began an investigation and interviewed Laura. Due to the ICE threats and her fear of retaliation, she decided that she didn’t want to proceed with an official complaint, she told The Intercept.
“The employee was placed on administrative leave until the investigation was completed and facts determined, as is standard practice,” CoreCivic said in its statement. “The two detainees making these claims were offered appropriate medical and mental health services, emotional support services, and answers to any questions they had about the investigative process.”
In her remaining months at Stewart, Laura said, “I couldn’t sleep, I could barely eat. I had fallen into depression. I was sick. The treatment is terrible.” Records obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request show — the DHS database — that officials at CRCL were notified of two reports from two women, alleging sexual abuse by a medical staff member.
The two other women in the CRCL complaint, Viviana and Marta, also allege similar behavior by the nurse. For both Viviana and Marta, he had them remove their shirts during an exam. With Marta, the complaint says, he also told her to remove her bra.
“The manner in which he engaged with patients was not indicated, outside the scope of his practice, and in violation of the medical ethics required of a healthcare professional during patient-provider encounters,” the CRCL complaint reads. “While it is common to auscultate (listen) to heart and lung sounds with a stethoscope, it does not require a patient to remove or lift up their shirt and expose their breasts and certainly does not require removal of the bra.”
Allegations of sexual assault and harassment — like those levied by Maria, Laura, Viviana, and Marta — are not new to the facility. Inspection reports about Stewart reviewed by The Intercept, although limited in nature, tally at least 27 reports of sexual assault in Stewart between 2017 and early 2021 — prior to an influx of women. At least three of those were accusations made against staff. The latest inspection report from Stewart, which covers May 2021 to May 2022, shows there were 14 reports of alleged sexual abuse, eight of them by staff. Two of the allegations of sexual assault by staff were substantiated, and one allegation against a detainee was also substantiated.
According to an internal DHS Office of Inspector General document from a 2017 inspection, guards at Stewart “lacked in-depth training” in guidelines laid out in the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which sets standards to prevent and address sexual assault in carceral facilities. Since its opening in 2006, Stewart has undergone two PREA audits: one in 2017 and one in 2021.
According to the Stewart Detention Center’s contract, ICE and the Stewart County Sheriff’s Office must be notified of all PREA-related reports. In response to a public records request submitted to the sheriff’s office, The Intercept found that there have been at least six official reports of alleged sexual assaults in an eight-month period, from July 2021 until April 2022. The sheriff’s office did not provide records for the other eight cases of alleged sexual assault at Stewart listed in the ICE inspection report.
The only way detainees could press charges was if a CoreCivic official drove them to the sheriff’s office.
Four of the complaints obtained from the sheriff’s office explicitly state that they were investigated “in house,” meaning that outside authorities did not get involved. In one report, it is written “no charges filed at this time” and on another, simply and with no further detail, “reported Prea case to Sheriff office by phone.”
On March 24, a complaint was shared with the sheriff’s office that merely stated: “Staff v Detainee Prea Case. Case handled in house.” CoreCivic said in its statement that their internal investigation into this complaint found the allegation to be “unfounded.”
During a phone interview, Stewart County Sheriff Larry Jones confirmed that CoreCivic investigated these six cases on their own, stating that the sheriff’s office would only get involved if someone wanted to press charges. The only way they could press charges, however, was if a CoreCivic official drove them to the sheriff’s office. “We don’t like going in and out of the facility. We try to stay away from there as much as possible because of Covid,” Jones said. He added, “Basically, there were so many small cases, PREA cases, it was overloading the court. [CoreCivic] suggested they would handle as many cases as possible within the facility.”
Since Stewart began locking up immigrants in 2006, advocacy groups have continually called for it to be shuttered, pointing to its harsh conditions. From 2008 to 2012, a series of advocacy reports and internal reviews found poor conditions at the detention center, with issues in medical care to abuse of discipline and lack of food quality.
In 2017, Project South published a report highlighting the worsening conditions, especially with medical care and guards’ use of solitary confinement. For years, the facility has been criticized for being understaffed, with DHS Office of Inspector General reports in both 2017 and 2021 highlighting the lack of qualified medical professionals.
In 2018, CoreCivic was hit with a lawsuit by people detained in Stewart and advocacy organizations, claiming that detained immigrants were forced to labor inside the facility for as little as $1 a day, and that those who refused were threatened with solitary confinement. (The lawsuit is ongoing; CoreCivic denied the labor abuses.) Today, much of the work to clean, cook, and maintain the facility is still performed by detained people.
In the past five years, Stewart has had the greatest number of deaths of any facility in the entire ICE detention network. Deaths at Stewart have steadily mounted for its entire decade-and-a-half history, stemming from alleged negligence, medical issues, mental health issues that did not get the proper attention, and more.
In 2008, two years after Stewart opened, Pedro Gumayagay, a migrant from the Philippines, died while in custody there. The following year, Roberto Medina-Martinez, also detained in Stewart, died of a heart condition, which was due to, according to a lawsuit, the “federal government’s negligence.” (The government settled with Medina’s widow; the terms are undisclosed.)
In 2017, after spending 19 days in a tiny solitary confinement cell, 27-year-old Jean Jimenez-Joseph died by suicide despite a call to a hotline for mental health help, demonstrating that CoreCivic and ICE officials knew of his worsening mental health. Months later, 33-year-old Yulio Castro-Garrido died of pneumonia, a lung infection, and viral influenza, despite having no health problems when first being transferred to Stewart.
In July 2018, Efraín Romero de la Rosa died by suicide in Stewart after correctional staff placed him in solitary confinement without following proper protocols, neglected his mental illness, and falsified documents. (In its statement, CoreCivic said: “Solitary confinement, whether as a term or practice, does not exist at any of the facilities we operate.” There is overwhelming documented evidence of solitary confinement cells in Stewart, including housing plan records as well as photos and videos of solitary units and cells obtained and published by The Intercept.)
During the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, officials counted at least 1,400 confirmed cases in Stewart — at one point, nearly 20 percent of the detainee population was infected. At least four people died of complications from the virus while detained at the facility.
In addition to the highest number of Covid deaths of any ICE detention center, officials in Stewart regularly ignored basic health protocols meant to keep people from contracting the virus. When the virus began to spread, migrants demanded personal protective equipment and basic hygiene items. On two occasions, in a two-week period, guards responded to the demands by deploying a SWAT-like “special response” unit, which then pepper-sprayed migrants, fired pepperball ammunition, and placed people in solitary confinement.
Another investigation from The Intercept found that a number of those officers joked about the use-of-force on social media and celebrated the violence. ICE launched an internal investigation into the force and inappropriate social media usage. The findings have not been shared with the public.
“It’s really unfortunate that the administration has taken the decision to keep this place open when it was fully aware of the tragedies that have taken place at this ICE prison over the years, whether it be deaths or human rights violations,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South. “It is on them to prevent future tragedies, and it’s fully in their control to shut this place down.”
Maria, Viviana, Laura, and Marta, the women in the CRCL complaint, are out of detention, waiting for their immigration cases to proceed. Despite Maria and Laura’s initial reports of misconduct, and despite CRCL being made aware of allegations against the nurse in January, the women say they have not been contacted by DHS, ICE, nor CoreCivic officials to continue the investigation into the alleged assault and harassment.
“What I want, most of all, is that if the nurse is there, what I want is for him to not be there. Because I don’t want anyone else to go through that,” Viviana said.
Maria echoed the sentiment: “I sometimes think I would have preferred staying in my country than to have this memory for my entire life. My country — where we don’t have food, where you have to stand in line to eat, where I had to end my studies. I would prefer to go through all of that rather than being abused again.”