by Cindy Knoebel

Five days ago, on May 22th, we posted a Colorlines article about the impact from COVID-19 on those trapped inside detention centers in Georgia. On Sunday, a man detained at Stewart Detention Center in GA died from COVID-19.

“We are scared. Here, we cannot keep the distance of two meters that is called for. All of us are placed together, we are 76 people in every section… there does not exist a way to be able to avoid an outbreak. Please, we ask for help from everyone…We are human beings, we also need to be with our families to be able to help them.” This quote in the article came from a detained person at Stewart Detention Facility in Lumpkin, GA.

On May 24th, reports emerged that Santiago Baten-Oxlaj, a 34-year-old Guatemalan man who was detained at Stewart, died in a Georgia hospital after testing positive for COVID-19. He is the second person in ICE custody to die from the deadly virus.

According to an ICE press release, Baten-Oxlaj had been granted a voluntary departure to Guatemala back on March 26th. But ICE continued to detain Baten-Oxlaj at Stewart for two more months - months that saw the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world and in detention centers. Had Baten-Oxlaj been expeditiously released, he might still be alive today.

Meanwhile, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in detention facilities continue to skyrocket: since May 8th, the number of people testing postive has more than doubled, to 1,312, as of yesterday.

Back on May 5, the Intercept published an in-depth article documenting the use of force by guards against detained immigrants, including pepper spray. The article includes accounts from those inside Stewart, who, as early as April, described people having symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

And on May 1, an incarcerated person at Stewart called Freedom for Immigrants' COVID-19 Detention Hotline and reported: Myself and others with asthma and diabetes were isolated from the general population over a month ago. We were about 15 people in isolation, but now there are only four. The isolation is not mandated when it is time to eat. There are times that guards take those who are in medical solitary to eat with the general population, but other times they make us eat in our cells. We have asked for clarification and reasoning behind our isolation, but the officers refuse to communicate the reasons behind their protocols. We have to clean up their own living spaces. We are provided masks and gloves so that we are protected from chemicals when cleaning.

Nineteen people at Stewart have contracted the virus. That figure, provided by ICE on  May 22, likely includes Baten-Oxlaj. How many more cases will emerge? And how many unavoidable deaths will ICE be responsible for?

Yesterday, I received this poignant poem from Steve Babb, a volunteer at El Refugio, a hospitality house serving families with loved ones at Stewart.