I Saw Jesus in Detention

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A few months ago in the early morning, Billy and I organized a group from my Atlanta-based church to visit men at Stewart Detention Center in south Georgia. It’s the biggest immigrant detention center on the East Coast, and It’s owned by CCA (Corrections Corporation of America), a for-profit prison corporation that operates numerous detention centers as well as state and federal prisons across the country.

Some of the immigrants detained in the facility had requested visitors, and so our church responded. I tried to imagine—who would be so lonely as to ask a stranger to meet with him? Someone living in a very isolated place. Stewart is located in Lumpkin, Georgia, a rural town near the border of Alabama. Many of the center’s residents have been transferred from other states—some as far away as California—and as a result are cut off from family, legal representation, and support networks.

Shrouded in barbed wire, Stewart was built as a medium-security prison. Its almost 1,800 beds are filled with men who’ve entered the country illegally, overstayed a visa, or served US prison sentences for previous crimes and are now awaiting removal proceedings. Perhaps the most important feature of the detention center is hidden behind the scenes:

This August, the federal government announced a move to reduce contracts with private prison corporations. Between 1980 and 2013, the federal prison population skyrocketed almost 800 percent, so the Bureau of Prisons began outsourcing to private companies. These companies essentially profit off the vulnerable and often value the bottom line above the humanity of those in their charge. Private facilities like Stewart have been heavily criticized for inhumane conditions, including reduced food rations, overflowed plumbing, and fatally delayed healthcare.

The move to reduce contracts with these companies is an encouraging baby-step toward a more just prison system. However, some of our country’s most marginalized people—immigrants—are still a booming business for certain corporations. Approximately 50 percent of immigrants in detention are held in private facilities. Why? The federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the only law enforcement agency in the country that has congressionally-mandated minimums to uphold. In other words, they are required to have 34,000 immigrants detained on any given night. This mandate, also known as the bed quota, creates a constant demand for private prison services.

Our visit came a couple weeks after our church had mailed Father’s Day cards with the hope of encouraging and remembering those separated from their families. It’s difficult to find appropriate greeting cards in such painful circumstances.

Through these experiences and our church partnership with El Refugio ministry, I’ve learned a lot about immigrant detention over the last few months. In light of the federal government’s declaration to reduce private prison contracts (but not privatized immigration detention centers), I wrote a piece called “I Saw Jesus in Detention” being featured on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog.

When our congregation asked about the purpose of our trip to Stewart, we relied on Christ’s invitation in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Of course, this wasn’t prison exactly. It was immigration detention. Maybe that’s why, when we arrived, I was unprepared for the distinctly prison-like look of the facility.

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