Charges Dropped for Five Who Protested at Stewart Detention Center
(APN) ATLANTA — Five people arrested for criminal trespassing while protesting at an immigration detention center in November 2014 have been cleared of all charges.
Known as the Stewart Five: Anton Flores, Kevin Caron, Maureen Fitzsimmons, Rebecca Kanner, and Jason McGaughey were arrested on November 22, 2014, at an annual demonstration held outside of Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
As reported by Atlanta Progressive News over the course of the last eight years, activists have repeatedly gathered outside Stewart’s gates to call for the prison’s closure. The demonstrations have taken place during the same weekend that School of the Americas Watch holds a massive protest at Ft. Benning.
On April 9, 2015 the Stewart Five appeared in court, along with supporters, and were informed that the charges were dismissed.
In the eight years that groups have protested at Stewart Detention Center, no arrests have resulted in charges until now.
They faced up to one year in prison, though none of the lawyers expected the sentencing to be that harsh.
Before the court date, lawyers spoke with the local District Attorney about dismissing the charges entirely because of how cooperative the defendants were at the time of arrest.
Lawyers also pointed to the fact that three of the defendants had to fly in from other parts of the country for the court date, a hardship, they argued, that should serve as punishment enough.
“It means we’ve generated enough attention that they feel the need to do something,” Kevin Caron, one of the Stewart Five, told Atlanta Progressive News.
Caron, a member of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, says the November 2014 demonstration was the biggest yet, with over one thousand people in attendance.
“I think it’s appalling how families are ripped apart,” Caron said in regards for his reasons for participating in the civil disobedience.
“The more you learn about Stewart the more you find out how horrible it is.”
Stewart Detention Center is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), one of the largest for-profit prison companies in the country.
CCA’s profits are in the hundreds of millions, but conditions at Stewart are miserable, according to reports by human rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia.
It is common for detainees to be served rancid food, or to find objects such as rocks, bugs, or even a tooth in their food, according to the reports.
The drinking water is sometimes green and detainees have developed rashes from the shower water.
Detainees live in cramped conditions with up to 66 men in one room with only three toilets, which frequently clog.
Guards are known to taunt and verbally abuse detainees, and sometimes physically abuse them as well.
CCA justifies paying detainees only one to three dollars a day for doing jobs that keep the prison running by saying the work program is “voluntary.”
But detainees have reported being punished for declining to work.
The exorbitant cost of phone calls and Stewart’s remote location prevents families with limited means from visiting and communicating with detainees. As a result, detainees are cut off from their communities.
These conditions also pose a barrier to adequate legal representation which, along with other factors like overcrowded immigration court dockets, result in detainees being confined longer, ensuring that taxpayer dollars continue to flow to CCA.
Flores, one of the arrestees, is the founder of El Refugio, an organization in Lumpkin that provides lodging and hospitality to people visiting detainees.
He was initially slapped with a 25,000 dollar bond while the others were set at 1,000 dollars, but the group’s legal team negotiated it down to 250 dollars each.
“It’s estimated that at least 85 percent of immigrants held inside our detention facilities around the United States and at Stewart never get any legal counsel,” Flores, one of the Stewart Five, recently told a community radio station in Colorado.
“I was very mindful of the fact that while we were standing there facing this misdemeanor charge that could have inconvenienced us for a while with incarceration, the individuals who are being torn apart from their families, perhaps for life, or whose families may have a de facto deportation themselves, are not given the access to that very democratic principle that so shapes our understanding of the criminal justice system.”