‘He was too familiar’
On July 12, counsel from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and affiliated advocates at Project South, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), the Black Alliance forJust Immigration (BAJI), El Refugio, the Georgia Human Rights Clinic, and Owings MacNorlin LLC sent a complaint letter to ICE, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General (OIG), alleging that four women detained at the Stewart Detention Center experienced repeated sexual assaults by a male nurse who was working at the facility until GBI launched its investigation Aug. 19.
According to the complaint, ICE and CoreCivic “enabled” the nurse’s actions by suppressing reports of the assaults and by allowing the nurse to continue treating detained people—including women. The letter details how the nurse’s pattern of abuse was to isolate women at Stewart in private medical examination rooms to “force or coerce them into giving him access to private parts of their body without medical justification or need and assaulting them during his ‘medical exams.’”
Before Viviana even interacted with the male nurse she alleges sexually assaulted her, a friend at the detention center told her there was something off about him.
“She thought he was too familiar,” Viviana explained. “He acted too affectionate.”
Soon, Viviana understood what her friend meant. After experiencing an allergic reaction, Viviana went to the medical unit for a steroid injection, where she encountered the nurse for the first time. She was under the impression that he was a doctor, and the nurse did nothing to dispel this notion. According to Viviana, the nurse was inappropriate almost immediately. Whenever they were alone, he pulled his mask down to smile at her. He even tried to use Google translate to convey something to her so that the interpreter wouldn’t hear.
When it was time to get the steroid shot in her buttocks, Viviana found herself in an uncomfortable negotiation. She told him she wanted a woman to give her the injection. In response, Viviana said the nurse laughed and repeatedly said that she was “in good hands” and that he had “good hands.”
“He was laughing and smiling and asking me a lot of questions. He said, ‘You know in a hospital, you wouldn’t have a choice of having a woman or a man?’ I felt very uncomfortable,” Viviana said.
He finally relented and a female nurse administered the injection, but there was also something askew about her behavior. Viviana said the whole time she was with the female nurse, the nurse kept looking at the door, as if she was worried the male nurse might barge in.
“She said something about how she knew ‘how he was,’” Viviana said, noting that after she received the injection, the male nurse did return to tell her that he “would have done it better.”
After the experience, Viviana learned from another detained woman that the male nurse went looking for her in her dorm. He didn’t find her because she was outside for the 30 minutes a day she was allowed “yard time.” But the nurse did catch up with Viviana again a few weeks later when she returned to Stewart from an off-site eye exam.
Viviana said the nurse took her into a room, closed the door, and said she needed a “chequeo médico” or medical check. He instructed her to lift her blouse so he could place a stethoscope on her chest, and then he told her to pull down her pants.
“I said, ‘What are you doing, I don’t understand.’ He just said to lower my pants so that he could put the stethoscope ‘down there.’ I kept saying, ‘Why, what are you doing?’ And all he would say over and over again was ‘chequeo médico, chequeo médico,’” Viviana said, growing emotional.
According to the complaint, after the inexplicable medical exam with the male nurse, the file from Viviana’s off-site appointment never made it into her medical record. She was afraid to report what happened through official channels because she had an upcoming bond hearing and she was worried that filing a complaint would affect her case. However, she did go back to her dorm and tell other women what happened.
“I just really wanted to get everything out,” Viviana said, tearing up as she explained that she didn’t even tell her own mother about the abuse and harassment because she was afraid of being heard on the detention center phone line. “I just let all my feelings out with the women and that’s when they said, ‘The same thing has been happening to us.’”
Abuse and retaliation
The complaint outlines the experiences of other women who say they were sexually abused, including Laura, who in September 2021 requested a medical check because she was experiencing stomach pain and a burning sensation in her leg. The male nurse reportedly took Laura to a small room and instructed her to lift her shirt. He then placed a stethoscope on her chest and touched around her breasts with the stethoscope and his fingers. He also allegedly asked her to lower her pants so he could place his hand and stethoscope near her crotch. According to Laura, the nurse also gave her bare foot a “weird massage while looking at her in a sexually suggestive manner that made her uncomfortable,” according to the complaint. During a second visit to the medical unit in December 2021, the male nurse again instructed Laura to lift her shirt and lower her pants. He touched her inappropriately all over her chest and below her waist with his hands and stethoscope.
On Jan. 3, Laura spoke with a psychologist at Stewart about what happened, and two detention staff members were alerted to the situation. That night, an official visited Laura in her dorm and instructed her to file an official report detailing her experiences with the male nurse. Another woman in the dorm overheard the conversation and said that she too wanted to make a report against the nurse. The women were taken to an office where they wrote down what happened on pieces of paper.
Shortly after, Laura was taken to a room by two detention center officials. One accused her of instigating other women to file false reports and told Laura she could go to prison for up to seven years for lying about sexual abuse. But inexplicably, Laura was released from Stewart a few days later, on Jan. 12, 2022.
From September to November 2021, the male nurse also reportedly sexually abused a woman calling herself Marta. The first incident occurred when she went to the medical unit for chest pain. The nurse took Marta into a room and instructed her to remove her shirt and bra, and he placed his stethoscope on her bare chest. In a second incident, Marta went to the medical unit with stomach pain. The male nurse told her she needed an enema, and just as he was preparing to insert the enema, a female nurse stopped him. According to the complaint, Marta did not know what the nurses said because they were speaking English, but “she understood that the female nurse took over and indicated that [he] should not have been doing what he was doing.” In a third incident, Marta went to the medical unit after falling and hurting her wrist. In a private room, the nurse insisted that Marta take off her pants so he could see if she also hurt her knees. When Marta repeatedly refused, the nurse grabbed her hand and insisted that she remove her pants. She was resolute, and he gave up, telling her in Spanish to “calm down.”
In December 2021, a woman going by the pseudonym Maria alleges that during a medical appointment with the nurse, he put his penis in her hand, ordered her to lower her pants, and attempted to touch her below her waistline. He also groped her breasts. When another nurse repeatedly knocked on the door, the male nurse allegedly took Maria to another office where he continued the assault. Marie reported the abuse to a guard in the hall, and he referred her to female CoreCivic officers. The two women took Maria’s statement, but accused her of concocting the story. Maria was interviewed a few other times, including one where up to four ICE officers were present. According to the complaint, it was during this meeting that a female nurse told Marie about the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and suggested that she “call lawyers to help her.”
Handling sexual assault allegations ‘in-house’
PREA is one of the main mechanisms for accountability for immigrants in federal custody who have been sexually assaulted. When an allegation of sexual assault or abuse is reported involving an ICE employee or contractor like CoreCivic, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) has the first right of refusal to investigate the allegation. Investigations declined by OIG are pursued by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), often in conjunction with a criminal investigation conducted by the local law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over the detention center.
According to Erin Argueta, a direct services attorney at SPLC, it appears that CoreCivic “basically decided they would handle the allegations in-house.” The attorney said that the private prison company didn’t properly document the abuse allegations, which could hinder an outside investigation like the one currently being conducted by GBI.
ICE’s own standards for maintaining a safe and secure detention environment say that detention facilities must adhere to a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and assault. These kinds of allegations are supposed to be reported through the facility’s chain of command and referred to law enforcement agencies, and the allegations need to be documented. While these procedures may exist at the Stewart Detention Center, advocates told Prism that ICE and CoreCivic have been negligent in adhering to their own standards for handling sexual assault allegations.
Argueta told Prism that officials appear to have done none of what they are required to do.
“There are policies in place—the National Detention Standards and PREA–that outline rules that are supposed to be followed. You’re supposed to immediately protect the person making the report so there are no threats of retaliation. You’re supposed to connect [the survivor] to outside victim advocates. You’re supposed to give them the appropriate medical care and emotional support and mental healthcare, and you’re also supposed to work with outside investigative agencies. None of that was done here. The women weren’t connected to anyone outside of Stewart, and they were threatened with retaliation for reporting their abuse.”
In a statement to Prism, a spokesperson said CoreCivic “maintains a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse,” in accordance with DHS and PREA standards.
“It is CoreCivic’s policy to aggressively investigate all sexual abuse allegations, regardless of the source, and support prosecution for those who are involved in incidents of sexual abuse,” a CoreCivic spokesperson said in a statement. “Any detainees making such allegations are offered appropriate medical and mental health services, emotional support services, and answers to any questions they have about the investigative process. We unequivocally deny any claims of threats or retaliation.”
The private prison company alleges that any potentially criminal allegation of sexual abuse is immediately referred to law enforcement and shared with ICE. Lumpkin City Clerk Anne Holloway told Prism that the Stewart County Sheriff’s Department has “complete jurisdiction” over the Stewart Detention Center, though it remains unclear if ICE or CoreCivic notified the sheriff’s department about the allegations. Sheriff Larry Jones did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for ICE told Prism the agency cannot comment because of the ongoing investigation.
What’s clear is that the Stewart Detention Center has a problem with sexual abuse that correlates directly with the facility’s detainment of women. The Intercept reported that there were at least 11 sexual assault complaints against staff at Stewart from May 2021 to May 2022, five of which focused on the male nurse. This differs from information found in an ICE facility inspection report of Stewart dated May 5, 2022, in which eight allegations of sexual abuse and assault by a staffer or contractor at the facility are documented in the preceding 12 months.
At the time the complaint letter was publicly released, it seemed that two women went public about their sexual assaults after being released—Marta and Viviana—and that two others, Maria and Laura, reported their sexual assaults through official channels while still detained. CoreCivic reported that its investigation found that one official complaint was “unsubstantiated” and the other was “unfounded.” A spokesperson for the private prison company told The Intercept that the nurse had “no prior allegations.” However, reporters José Olivares and John Washington found that to be untrue. A third official complaint was filed against the same nurse—which CoreCivic also found to be “unsubstantiated”—bringing the total number of allegations to five.
Argueta said CoreCivic has basically investigated itself and found no wrongdoing.
“And the company is absolutely refusing to acknowledge all of the reasons why sexual assault would be hard to report and prove by the victims. Another thing that’s extremely disturbing is that when the women did make official reports in December and January, they talked to several different officials at Stewart, so multiple people were aware sexual abuse was happening, and they did nothing,” Argueta said.
As part of PREA, auditors hired by ICE review each detention center’s handling of allegations every three years. A PREA audit conducted at Stewart in May 2021 found the standards for investigations, the assessment for risk of victimization and abusiveness, and criminal and administrative investigations were not being met at the facility. The audit also substantiated at least one allegation of sexual assault committed by a staff member.
While five allegations are confirmed, Argueta said SPLC knows of at least six women who were sexually assaulted by the male nurse and that there are “likely additional women.”
“I can think of at least one who was deported and who we don’t have contact information for,” Argueta said. “We’ve heard of one other woman who may have also been deported. It’s impossible to know the full extent of this kind of problem, but I know there are others who are probably afraid to come forward.”
It was another kind of assault on bodily autonomy that actually led cisgender women to be detained at Stewart for the first time in September 2020—and it took just a year before documented complaints of sexual assault rolled in.
ICE began to transfer cisgender women to Stewart from the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), located more than 100 miles away in Ocilla, Georgia, after it was found that OB/GYN Mahendra Amin sterilized and performed other gynecological procedures on detained women without their full and informed consent. ICDC contracted with Amin for his services and while he no longer provides care to detained women, the OB/GYN appears to have suffered no repercussions for his actions. Amin, who has a reported decades-long history of medical harm and neglect, was still providing care to low-income women in rural Georgia as recently as last year.
Argueta said she cannot imagine what it’s been like for detained women to know about the forced sterilizations that happened at ICDC and to now hear about sexual abuse at Stewart.
“The government and the Biden administration got a pat on the back for saying what happened at ICDC was horrific and that they would stop detaining immigrants there, but then they just quietly—without any announcement—began detaining a higher number of women at Stewart,” the attorney said.
Stewart—one of the deadliest detention centers in the nation—can detain almost 2,000 people, also making it one of the largest in the U.S. The facility is also particularly profitable to CoreCivic. As of 2016, the detention center was estimated to net CoreCivic approximately $38 million in profits each year. As long as federal authorities allow private prison companies like CoreCivic to profit from harm and human suffering, facilities like Stewart will continue to exist no matter the horror stories that emerge from them, said Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio.
El Refugio offers meals and free lodging to family members visiting loved ones detained at Stewart, which is located in an economically depressed region of rural West Georgia. Through El Refugio’s advocacy and support programs, Valencia has helped immigrant communities in the region for more than 10 years, seeing firsthand the destruction that detention causes.
It’s not just the family separation that’s baked into the detention system, Valencia said, it’s also the countless cases of medical neglect, in-custody death, human rights abuses, forced labor, and sexual abuse that have emerged from Stewart over the years. And still, local officials treat the detention center as a godsend. The Stewart Detention Center is one of the only businesses fueling the local economy. The facility is one of the county’s top employers, and at least 20% of the region’s total yearly revenue is generated from the detention center. Valencia said even the water that local residents drink is tied to CoreCivic because the water tank that serves the community is located on the grounds of the Stewart Detention Center.
“I wish people would understand that this dependence on incarceration hasn’t improved the quality of life in rural towns like Lumpkin,” Valencia said. “There is no investment in the community. The money goes into the pockets of shareholders and no one is ever really held accountable for the human rights abuses that are allowed so that these private prison companies can continue profiting. How many more times will people need to risk it all to come forward only to be ignored or blamed or retaliated against? ICE is not accountable. CoreCivic is not accountable. The local police are not going to do anything because they have completely given up their power to CoreCivic.”
Gatekeeping medical care
Argueta told Prism she is increasingly worried about the chilling effect that the male nurse accused of sexual assault will have on medical care at the Stewart Detention Center.
“This was already a facility known for substandard care,” Argueta said. “When someone abuses their position of power in the medical unit—when medical care is already extremely hard to get—it creates this dynamic where the abuser is the gatekeeper to needed medical care. Allowing this person to continue standing between women and medical care is abusive.”
One former Stewart employee who spoke to Prism on the condition of anonymity confirmed the medical care at Stewart is “extremely poor.”
“Frankly, the health care was designed for two reasons: One was to process the detainees in, and the other was to process them out,” the former employee said. “When people got sick while they were there, they got very basic care. If a detainee got seriously ill, the health care facility that [Stewart] worked with on transport was something like 40 miles away.”
The former employee said they were “very alarmed” when they learned that the Stewart Detention Center was going to begin detaining women in 2020 because they didn’t think the medical unit had the proper training or resources to offer medical care to women.
According to SPLC, an internal review of the medical records of people detained at Stewart showed that the male nurse accused of sexual assault was involved in the medical care of at least 165 people between December 2019 and January 2022. Afer the initial allegations of sexual assault, records indicate the nurse appears to have been briefly reassigned to the segregation unit where—according to the complaint letter—”people are isolated and vulnerable to further harm with no opportunity to seek help.”
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