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21 Savage Is Being Held in ‘One of the Worst Immigration Detention Centers in the U.S.’

The advocacy organization Project South has asked the U.N. to condemn Irwin County Detention Center for “extensive human rights violations”

21 Savage2018 MTV Video Music Awards - Press Room, New York, USA - 20 Aug 2018

21 Savage

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Four days after 21 Savage’s shocking arrest by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the rapper, whose real name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, remains in custody.

ICE claims the rapper, a British national, has long overstayed his visa and is thus eligible for deportation; Abraham-Joseph’s legal team contends that he has been “continuously physically present in the United States for almost 20 years” and has a visa application pending. The rapper’s attorneys argue that Mr. Abraham-Joseph is not subject to mandatory detention under federal law and is eligible for bond,” but ICE has not granted Abraham-Joseph bond as of Thursday afternoon.

While he waits, the rapper is being held in Irwin County Detention Center, sources familiar with the situation tell Rolling Stone. Abraham-Joseph’s location was previously reported by The Blast. Irwin, a 1,200-capacity facility located about three hours from Atlanta, has a brutal history — guards are quick to toss detainees into solitary confinement and officials ignore reports of sexual abuse, according to reports from detainees and their attorneys. “It’s a horrendous place and one of the worst immigration detention centers in the U.S.,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, who spent seven years as National Security and Immigrants’ Rights Project Director for the ACLU of Georgia.

21 Savage’s legal team declined to confirm or provide comment on 21 Savage’s location. A representative for ICE, which runs the detention center, declined to confirm Abraham-Joseph’s location, citing agency privacy rules.

Shahshahani has been investigating the treatment of detainees at places like Irwin for over a decade. During her time at the ACLU and then as Legal and Advocacy Director for Project South, an immigrant advocacy group, Shahshahani co-authored several reports on Irwin and its larger sister facility, Stewart Detention Center. Three detainees have died at Stewart in the last two years.

In March 2014, the ACLU and 23 other nonprofit organizations, community groups and religious congregations asked the Georgia Congressional delegation to officially investigate the conditions at Irwin and Stewart. Project South reiterated this appeal in November 2017, noting that, “three years later, the situation remains largely unabated.”

The 2017 report submitted by Shahshahani and her collaborators, published after a year-long investigation, incorporates testimonials from 31 immigrants in Irwin, a handful of former detainees who were deported to Guatemala and 14 lawyers whose clients were held at the facility. These conversations yielded a vivid and harsh picture: “Detained immigrants almost unanimously reported finding objects in the food” — a rock, a nail, a cockroach — and “being forced to eat rancid foods.”

In addition, Project South believes “the lack of adequate access to medical care is alarming.” “The standard wait time for immigrants at Irwin wanting to visit the medical staff is between two days and two weeks,” and “once detained immigrants finally meet with medical personnel, their conditions are loosely diagnosed and their complaints are ignored.” In addition, “pregnant women at Irwin receive no prenatal care and are treated like all other detained immigrants.”

Officials at Irwin allegedly view due process as optional, according to stories from immigrants who have passed through the facility. “Some detained immigrants report being forced to sign documents without speaking to an attorney,” Project South notes. “Others stated that it took months before they had an initial appearance before a judge.” The U.S. constitution protects the right to fair bail, but “the court at Irwin is also notorious for issuing very high bonds,” often unpayable for poor immigrants.  

That’s just one alleged abuse of power that takes place at the detention center. ICE has regulations in place to limit the use of solitary confinement, which “should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice report published in 2016. But officials at Irwin and Stewart may not have read their own handbook: “Detained immigrants at the two Georgia facilities reported being sent to segregation for minor, even silly, reasons such as not tucking in a shirt, talking too much and arguing during soccer matches.”

Sometimes new detainees are thrown into solitary confinement for up to a week until room is made for them elsewhere in Irwin, according to Project South interviews with immigrants in the facility. Solitary confinement has also been used as a punishment for those who attempted to protest their treatment by initiating hunger strikes. And even detainees who said they felt suicidal have reported being sent to solitary.

Staying out of solitary has its own dangers: “Disturbing complaints have come from detained immigrants who report witnessing or being victims of sexual abuse and having no guards or other staff at Irwin attempt to identify and discipline the perpetrators,” Project South notes.  

Due to circumstances like this, Jeremy McKinney, a North Carolina-based immigration attorney, says that in situations where his clients are denied bail and thus likely to face a long time in detention, “I’d be looking at options to try to get him out of the United States as quickly as possible.”

“I would worry about [Abraham-Joseph’s] mental health, being detained,” adds Michele Lampach, Executive Director of UnLocal, a non-profit law firm focused on immigration. “‘Detained’ doesn’t sound like he’s a prisoner, or incarcerated, or in jail. But he’s in jail.”

Shahshahani has watched detainees’ mental health worsen almost in real time. “Recently an immigrants’ right leader, Eduardo Samaniego, was being detained at Irwin, and he was not provided with mental healthcare,” she says. “Despite a national campaign to release him from ICE detention — his conditions were horrible, he was on suicide watch for a couple weeks and experienced horrible deterioration in his mental and physical health — they deported him last Friday.”

Georgia’s members of Congress have done little with the information provided by Shahshahani and her collaborators. Two — Hank Johnson and John Lewis — have spoken up, but most remain silent. That’s probably because, as immigration attorney Julio Moreno puts it, “throughout the legal community, Georgia is known to be one of the toughest places [in terms of immigrants’ rights] in the U.S.”

Shahshahani maintains that, “These are grave human rights violations that the U.S. government is not doing anything — that we can see — to address.” Last May, Project South joined with the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Transnational Legal Clinic to appeal outside of the U.S.: They submitted a 20-page report to the United Nations, asking officials who were experts on torture and “contemporary forms of slavery” to visit Irwin and Stewart and condemn the facilities for “extensive human rights violations.”

“These are ongoing violations,” Shahshahani explains. “People are dying in detention centers. The purpose [of reaching out to the U.N.] is to raise awareness about the conditions [at Irwin and Stewart], continue to keep these issues in the spotlight, and let the government and the corporations know that the world is watching, and they cannot continue to abuse people in this way.”

The U.N. seemed receptive to Project South’s letter, and it has reached out to “the corporations that operate these facilities,” according to Shahshahani. In addition, she says, “we’re involved in a class action lawsuit against CoreCivic, the company that runs the Stewart detention center, for a forced labor program — forcing immigrants to do work for sub-minimal wages that the corporation would have had to hire regularly waged employees for.” That lawsuit is pending before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“There’s definitely a track record of abuse and egregious treatment at these facilities,” Shahshahani adds. “They need to be shut down.”

In This Article: 21 Savage

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