Reminder: Corporations Are Profiting Off Of Migrant Detention

The stories being reported from our country’s Southern border are horrifying. It is worth remembering that two corporations are profiting handsomely off of the current administration’s callous and inhumane policies. CoreCivic and GEO Group are the two largest providers of private prison and detention centers in the country.

In April, a lawsuit was filed against CoreCivic, alleging that the corporation is making millions in profit off of forced labor of migrants detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The detainees are paid a meager wage of between $1 and $4 a day.

The lawsuit further alleges that detainees are deprived of basic necessities — like food, toilet paper, or soap — and must work for the ability to purchase those items from Stewart’s commissary. If they refuse to work, they are threatened with solitary confinement, or further withholding of necessities.

The plaintiffs, represented by a coalition of civil rights groups and lawyers, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and Project South, include Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a detainees currently incarcerated at Stewart.

“When I arrived at Stewart I was faced with the impossible choice — either work for a few cents an hour or live without basic things like soap, shampoo, deodorant and food,” Barrientos wrote in a statement released to CNN in April.

“If I didn’t work,” Barrientos continued, “I would never be able to call my family.”

A joint investigation from Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting and WABE reveals more about the inhumane conditions at Stewart. Reporters obtained federal records showing that Stewart is experiencing critical staffing shortages as well as an influx of drugs. Two detainees have died in a 12 month period; one who died by hanging himself with a bed sheet while being held in solitary confinement, and the other from complications from pneumonia.

Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, sent a letter to several members of Congress last week, calling on them to “end an unjust detention system that sends immigrants far from their families and friends, subordinates their well-being to the profit of others, and strips them of their rights.”

Similar lawsuits and allegations are cropping up at detention centers owned by CoreCivic around the country. Last month, a group of men issued a statement detailing the severe abuses and mistreatment that they are subject to inside Otay Mesa Detention Center, outside of San Diego. “They force us to work for 6 hours for a payment of $1.50,” the letter reads. They also claim that they are threatened to be sent before a Judge when they refuse to work. The letter is signed by 37 detainees.

Any modicum of profit motive is poison to a system which seeks to humanely detain people. The basic civic responsibility of the justice system cannot be held hostage by corporate executives, city budgets, or stockholders.

Remembering our Friend and Hero, Lewis Sinclair

Ten years ago today, the world lost a true luminary. A dear friend of the Southern Center, Lewis Sinclair, peacefully passed away at the age of 93 on June 8th, 2008.

Lewis and his beloved wife of 27 years, Mary Sinclair

A passion for and dedication to social justice and grassroots community organizing were constant throughout Lewis’s incredible life. He believed that people didn’t need to be lectured on what was wrong, or what needed to change in their communities – they already knew  – and that the fixes were simply a matter of bringing people together to collectively identify challenges and brainstorm their solutions. “You need two things to do this work, a sense of outrage and a sense of humor, and Lewis had both in abundance,” former Southern Center President Steve Bright told the AJC. “He never let us take ourselves too seriously. He raised our spirits on countless occasions.”

Lewis was a constant presence at protests.

Lewis was an economist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, who eventually retired to Atlanta. He was a constant presence at protests against capital punishments and any human rights violation. As a friend of SCHR — and a board member —  Lewis, along with Mary Sinclair, his beloved partner of 27 years, would assist in death penalty cases by interviewing witnesses and preparing them to testify in court, ensure client’s family was taken care of, and volunteer any variety of practical assistance that the SCHR attorneys needed. “Lewis was very proud of the Southern Center and proud of its work,” remembers Mary Sinclair. “He felt so good about what the office did.”

Kori Chen writes in the SCHR Human Rights Report, “while deeply committed to SCHR’s excellent legal work, Lewis also believed that you could only achieve so much through the courtroom. Lewis remembers that SCHR – then known as the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee – was founded to be the legal support for local activists organizing against the death penalty and brutality in prisons and jails. Thus, he was very supportive of broadening the scope of its work to include strategies such as community organizing through programs like Fairness for Prisoners’ Families and our campaign against private probation companies in Americus, Georgia. In essence, Lewis saw these efforts as returning SCHR to its roots.”

Most poignantly, Lewis believed in the power of people. He believed that every individual, regardless of profession or status, holds the power within themselves to create the change that is needed in the world. We carry these lessons with us and continue to be inspired by Lewis’s legacy.

“From my earliest days at SCHR, I knew I had cheerleaders in Mary and Lewis Sinclair,” remembers Sara Totonchi, SCHR Executive Director. “They helped us all feel part of something larger than ourselves, a struggle of enormous urgency for human rights and dignity. As we remember Lewis today, we reaffirm our commitment to continuing the struggle that he and others bravely fought for so many years.”

Read Kori Chen’s tribute to Lewis here.

Death Sentences are Dwindling in Georgia, In Favor of a Different Kind of Death Sentence: Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole

It has been 4 years since a jury in the state of Georgia handed down a death sentence. This trend, and the shifting perceptions of capital punishment, have been reflected across the country: according to a Quinnipiac National Poll released in March, American voters support the death penalty 58 – 33 percent for people convicted of murder, yet when offered a choice between the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole, Americans choose the life option, 51 – 37 percent. According to Quinnipiac, this marks the first time a majority of voters backed the life without parole option since they began asking this question in 2004.

Georgia courts have imposed just four death sentences in the past nine years, and none since 2014. This is a remarkable shift from the 1990s, in which the state averaged nine new death sentences per year. It would appear from that shift that Georgia, through its prosecutors and juries, has turned away from the death penalty.  But executions tell a different story. Georgia carried out one or two executions per year in the 1990s, yet our state has executed nineteen people in the last four years.

Over the last few years, Georgia has executed a man whose drunk lawyer bungled the case, a man with intellectual disabilities, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a woman who planned but did not actually commit murder, and at least three men with strong claims of actual innocence. “These cases are no outliers,” says Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights. “They are emblematic of a particularly harsh time in Georgia’s history when death sentences were handed out frequently despite substantive and procedural flaws. And they encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia.”

In 2017, nationally, 39 death sentences were imposed. While this number is still unacceptably high (particularly when juxtaposed against the rest of the Western world) compared to 1998, when 295 individuals were sentenced to die, it’s a welcome decline. Pete Skandalakis, the Executive Director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, attributes the decline in death sentences as a result of people getting more comfortable with the idea of life without the possibility of parole. “That has made a huge difference,” Skandalakis told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “And when you sit down with victims’ families and discuss the process of a death-penalty case with all the pretrial hearings, then the years of appeals that follow, I have found that families like the finality of life without parole. It lets them get on with their lives.”

A sentence of life without the possibility of parole – while an improvement over capital punishment in many ways – is a different sort of death sentence. Sending someone to die behind bars, with no expectation of ever being released, denies their humanity and their chance at redemption. Still, it seems that Georgia – and perhaps the country as a whole – is more ready than it’s ever been to move past capital punishment.

“Now is the time for Georgia to acknowledge that the death penalty no longer serves us,” says Totonchi. “It’s expensive, it’s fraught with errors, it’s disproportionately sought against people of color and low income individuals, and it targets our most vulnerable, including people with disabilities and metal health conditions.”

Read more at the AJC.