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After Hunger Strike, Detention Center Plans To Punish Stateless Palestinian With Solitary

A privately-run detention center in Georgia plans to retaliate against Alaa Yasin, a young stateless Palestinian man, for engaging in a hunger strike.

Yasin has been illegally detained at the Stewart Detention Center for over six months. The facility, which is run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), intends to put him in solitary confinement. In response to Yasin’s treatment, a coalition of advocacy groups in Georgia demand his immediate release.

Kevin Caron, who is part of the Shut Down Stewart Coalition, spoke to Yasin, who informed him that he was ending his hunger strike.

“I didn’t give up. Ramadan is coming and I decided that I wanted to be healthy and ready for Ramadan,” Yasin stated. But now that means he will be put in isolation for 29 days.

“It’s punishment for an incident that occurred on April 29,” Caron told Shadowproof. “Alaa was seen by a nurse and had his blood drawn. The nurse gave him two Band-Aids and he asked for another. She refused and he persisted, saying something like, ‘Come on, it’s not money out of your pocket.'”

“Later, she wrote a grievance about something different. She complained that there was not a guard stationed at the clinic door as per CCA protocol. She wrote that she didn’t feel safe. She also mentioned in the report that Alaa ‘was rude.’ According to Alaa, who spoke with her about it later, she was complaining against CCA for not properly staffing the facility. She said it didn’t have to do with Alaa specifically; she would feel unsafe if she were alone with any detainee.”

In other words, the CCA-operated immigrant detention center plans to punish Yasin because it cannot or does not adequately staff the detention center.

According to Yasin’s attorney, Helen Parsonage, Yasin has been held without release or deportation for more than eight months. He was detained after he used his “uncle’s address on his visa application.”

A petition started by Bonnie Knowles, who sponsored Yasin when he first came to the US, described how he was “accused of working without authorization on a student visa” after “helping out at his uncle’s pizza shop after school. His uncle allowed him to keep his tips.” 

The United States government is prohibited from holding an immigrant in indefinite detention if the government cannot show an immigrant will be deported in the foreseeable future, especially when an immigrant is held for over six months. ICE has not arranged Yasin’s deportation, even though he has had an order for deportation for more than 200 days.

On top of the illegal detention, the government went to a court and requested an order to force-feed Yasin while he was on hunger strike. A federal district court judge denied the request.

Azadeh Shahshahani chairs Georgia Detention Watch: a coalition of organizations, which works with immigrants to “end the inhumane and unjust detention and law enforcement policies and practices directed against immigrant communities.” Shahshahani told Shadowproof that Yasin’s case is a particularly egregious example of the government illegally detaining a person, and then instead of following the law, taking steps to force-feed him. It “truly exhibits the lengths” to which they will go to be certain “any type of uprising or protest” is “shut down immediately.”

Yasin was confined in a medical unit, where he is under 24-hour watch by guards. In the unit, the medical staff can take blood and conduct tests to monitor his health.

On April 28, Yasin was willing to end his hunger strike. He ate a meal that day, according to Caron. After he ate his meal, staff took Yasin to solitary confinement. He was frustrated and went back on hunger strike, which led the staff to move him back to the medical unit.

Yasin is not permitted any recreation while in the medical unit. Caron said he could not find anywhere in the standards, where it said hunger strikers were not allowed recreation. The decision to not grant a hunger striker recreation time is entirely up to the official in charge of running the medical unit.

Sebastian S. Mason, a supervisory detention and deportation officer with Homeland Security, ICE, and the Office of Enforcement and Removal Operation in Atlanta, argued in a declaration that Yasin had to be force-fed because the death of Yasin would “seriously affect the operation of the Stewart Detention Center.”

“Perceptions may be formed by the detained population that the detention and removal staff will simply let Yasin die, without doing anything to save him, which could lead to acts of detainee violence and disruptions,” Mason asserted. “Detainees may initiate hunger strikes in an attempt to pressure staff to transfer them away from the Stewart Detention Center or to gain their release from detention. Without the ability to intervene when medically necessary, the detention facility will be forced to choose between letting the detainee die and giving in to his wishes.”

The mindset is very similar to the mindset of the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, where captives held indefinitely without charge or trial—some even cleared for release—resort to hunger strike because they believe it is the only option they have to challenge their confinement.

Mason also claimed detainees at the Stewart Detention Center may lose confidence in the “skills, ability, or willingness of medical staff.” However, such confidence has probably already been lost, since the facility let a man named Roberto Medina Martinez die.

A report from the ACLU of Georgia indicates Martinez “died of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that is usually caused by a viral infection and is often treatable.” CCA has a reputation for detainee deaths at facilities, where staff would not provide adequate health care. In many cases, “disciplinary procedures at CCA facilities can be haphazard and arbitrary, extremely harsh, or completely unwarranted.”

Shahshahani said Stewart Detention Center was “without a physician for more than three years” after Martinez’s death. ICE claimed to be searching for a physician, but the fact is the facility is in a “very remote” part of Georgia. It is about two and half hours from Atlanta. As Shahshahani put it, “Who would want to go and work there?”

Stewart Detention Center has a capacity of more than 1,700 detainees, but according to Shahshahani, the population is down to around 400 because the facility does not have enough medical staff.

The facility has allowed Yasin to see visitors, but Caron said the last time he tried to visit Yasin he waited longer than other visitors “because they had to get special approval” for his visit.

How the privately-operated facility has treated Yasin is similar to how other detainees have been treated for expressing dissent or unhappiness with their detention.

“Stewart has this so-called voluntary work program,” Shahshahani highlighted. “It’s operated by Corrections Corporation of America. This voluntary work program is a great way for the corporation to make additional money because basically instead of hiring regularly paid employees to do the work, to perform the chores, the Corporation gets the men at the facility to perform the chores and then pays them between $1-4.”

“The Corporation maintains this work program is voluntary, but we documented a case where several men at the facility had actually said they are not interested in working anymore. Then they had been threatened by the guards with being placed in solitary. That is how solitary confinement is being used at this facility.”

Members of the steering committees of Georgia Detention Watch conducted an inspection of the facility in April. The members claim ICE and CCA staff admit it has a lower capacity to provide medical services to detainees. It continues to use solitary confinement in a retaliatory manner. The facility also has a non-functioning phone number, which makes it next to impossible for detained immigrants to report assaults.

Caron went into a solitary confinement cell back in April. He said it is a small “cubicle size box,” and most people can touch the ceiling with their hands. There is a metal sink and toilet, which are connected to each other. There are no windows. Detainees are not allowed contact with other people. The facility claims detainees still get one hour of recreation each day, but detainees must use a separate recreation space.

The conditions at Stewart Detention Center have spurred two major uprisings—one in the summer of 2014 and one in the fall of 2015.

As Caron said, Yasin’s case represents a situation that is “not really uncommon.” In fact, there are “people who have opted to be deported and actually paid for their own deportation flights,” however, they have been “held at Stewart for months on end.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."