A season of protest in Georgia continued Friday in front of a federal immigration detention center here, as a crowd of 270 people called for the closing of the Stewart Detention Center.
The fifth annual protest, which included two arrests, sought to highlight what demonstrators claim are inhumane conditions inside the facility, as well as the plight of the inmates’ families on the outside.
“We’re here to fight for the justice of immigrants and those who are detained in Stewart,” said Arely Lara, 13, of Dalton, Ga., who said her father was held here before being deported to Mexico.
Activists marched more than a mile uphill from downtown Lumpkin to the entrance of the detention center, where they held vigil and celebrated the release of one inmate, Pedro Guzman, who was behind bars here this time a year ago.
“This place breaks you,” he said, assailing the conditions inside the detention center. “It’s basically made to break your soul.”
Guzman was joined by his family, who described the impact his incarceration had on their lives several hours away in North Carolina.
“Most do not fight because the system is not set up for justice,” said Guzman’s wife, Emily, who is five months pregnant. “It is set up to get as many immigrants out of the country as possible. Pedro is free, but so many are not.”
Prison officials have denied the claims made by the protesters. Stewart Detention Center is run by Corrections Corporation of America , the country’s largest private corrections company. “We’re mystified why these individuals would want to protest a company that saves taxpayers millions, provides safe, humane housing for detainees and helps keep communities safe,” said Steve Owen, a company spokesman.
The cold air was filled Friday with echoes of other activist movements of recent weeks. One woman wore a pin in remembrance of Troy Anthony Davis, the Georgia prisoner executed in September amid an international uproar prompted by his claims of innocence.
Others were affiliated with the Occupy movement and the SOA Watch protest taking place this weekend in Columbus.
The size of the crowd more than doubled from last year’s event when eight protesters were arrested for crossing onto the prison grounds, said Anton Flores-Maisonet of Georgia Detention Watch. One demonstrator, Chris Spicer of Chicago, was arrested Friday afternoon and charged with a misdemeanor count of criminal trespassing.
“I want to cross because we are crossing a river of love with no fear for you,” Spicer told the crowd before ducking under a yellow strip of police tape and being handcuffed.
Spicer was released this year from federal prison after serving time for trespassing onto Fort Benning at the 2010 SOA Watch protest. Flores-Maisonet, who emceed the event, was briefly taken into custody after the crowd dispersed, accused of crossing onto prison grounds when he took Spicer’s jacket.
Stewart County Sheriff Larry Jones said authorities reviewed news media footage of the event and determined Flores-Maisonet was not in violation.
“We replayed the video and got that corrected,” Jones said, referring to Magistrate Judge G. Wayne Ammons’ dismissal of the charge. “The video cleared him.”
Flores-Maisonet, who was arrested for an act of civil disobedience at last year’s event, said the authorities took “a much more aggressive stance this year,” noting protesters last year were released on $250 bond, while Spicer’s bond was set Friday at $5,000.
“Rather than trying to obstruct justice,” he said, “we’re trying to obstruct injustice.”
Speakers at the protest urged the crowd to resist recent efforts by state legislators to crack down on illegal immigration. Xochitl Bervera of the Georgia Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition said federal authorities and state legislators in Alabama and Georgia “have already lost” because a growing number of people are speaking out against the incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
“You’re on your way out,” Bervera said. “A new day is coming, and we can see the sun rising over the horizon as we speak.”
Participants waved banners bearing slogans like “Brown is not a crime” and “No human being is illegal.”
A number of activists from Columbus made the 45-minute drive to join in the march. Others, like Scott M. Woods, came all the way from Phoenix, a city embroiled in its own debate over immigration.
Woods said there should be “a better way of dealing with the situation” than detention and deportation, such as more opportunities for immigrants to gain citizenship.
“I don’t believe that migrants should be incarcerated,” said Woods, who came to town for the annual SOA Watch protest in Columbus. “There are a lot of jobs that they’ll do and nobody else will.”
Lumpkin Police Chief Ronald Jackson said the event was peaceful as usual. The only change, he said, was that the crowd was asked to stay off the courthouse lawn because it just received new grass.
“We don’t have any trouble with them — anything we ask them to do they comply,” Jackson said. “Each year you can look and see it getting larger and larger, so I reckon they’re getting their message out.”