Protests at ICE detention center mount as expansion plans move forward

Apr. 23—FOLKSTON — The campaign to shut down the Folkston ICE Processing Center was alerted to an urgent issue regarding the launch of a hunger strike by immigrants imprisoned at FIPC, a GEO Group operated for-profit detention facility, while their immigration status goes through courts.

At a protest launching the campaign to Shut Down FIPC, protesters spoke and chanted alongside dozens of people detained at FIPC who had successfully resisted the attempts of GEO guards threatening them with tear gas to force them out of the yard and back inside the ICE facility as the protest approached.

From behind two chain link fences, the people in the yard shouted to the protesters gathered on the dirt road outside the detention center. They reported that guards had physically assaulted people for speaking out about insufficient and spoiled food. They also reported that many had been waiting for more than eight months for a decision or even a next step in their legal process, and that they wanted to be with their families, their loved ones, their children.

The hunger strike began Monday when two people who allegedly tried to keep the door open to the prison yard on the day of the protest were sent to solitary confinement. Starting at lunch, the entire B4 unit of almost 60 people refused to eat any food. Their demands are that the people in solitary confinement are released and that people don't languish in detention while they fight their cases or after they have already been deported.

"This hunger strike is being carried out to protest abuse, human rights violations, excessive delays in legal proceedings and retaliation many are facing for speaking out about their conditions," campaign organizer Nat Villasana said.

In retaliation for speaking out on Saturday, GEO Group has also reportedly disabled video tablets in B4. One person reported that the phone lines were cut off.

"We have been told that while in isolation, they are only served one meal a day, spoiled milk is the only thing provided for breakfast, and they are only let out once a day for time to shower," Villasana said.

The hunger strike is taking place at the same time as the campaign to Shut Down FIPC ramps up. During a protest rally, several detained immigrants spoke from behind the fenced-in facility and shared their stories with campaign organizers.

The campaign to Shut Down FIPC was launched to demand a halt to federal plans to expand Folkston prison into the nation's largest detention center for immigrants. This move comes after Charlton County and private prison giant GEO Group reached a deal in December 2021 to expand the existing facility by 1,800 beds to a record 3,000 total, making it the largest immigrant detention facility in the country. The deal was made as a prior contract was set to expire, and cannot take effect without a separate agreement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. If filled, the prison's population including staff would rival the city of Folkston's population of 6,000 residents.

"We are also calling on Sens. Ossoff and Warnock to listen to their constituents and speak out against the FIPC expansion into the biggest ICE detention center in the country," campaign organizer Natalie Villasana said. "Instead of fighting for immigrant rights, Warnock opposed Biden's intention to end Title 42, the Trump-era restriction that Biden has used to deport millions of people at the border. We demand that Warnock denounce anti-immigrant policies and corporate deals like the FIPC expansion that furthers the suffering of immigrants in Georgia."

Protesters say there is already a record of human rights abuses in Georgia's ICE facilities. Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths of any detention center in the country. Additionally, President Biden was forced to take action to close Irwin County Detention Center after a nurse whistleblower exposed dozens of medical abuses — including forced sterilizations — carried out against immigrant women detained in the facility.