With Private Immigrant Detention up for Review, a Former Inmate Describes the Harsh Life on the Inside

With his mother and members of the refugee advocacy group Alerta Migratoria by his side, Wildin Acosta spoke about his experiences in a privately run immigrant detention center during an Aug. 29 press conference. (Photo by Allie Yee.)

With Private Immigrant Detention up for Review, a Former Inmate Describes the Harsh Life on the Inside

When the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last month that it was divesting from private prisons after they were found to be more dangerous than publicly run facilities, immigrant advocates hailed the groundbreaking decision.

However, the move would affect only 13 prisons, as most private prisons are run not by the DOJ but by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigrant advocacy groups immediately called on DHS to follow suit.

This week, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that he had directed the Homeland Security Advisory Council to investigate whether the department should also divest from private prisons, asking it to "consider all factors concerning [Immigration and Customs Enforcement's] detention policy and considerations." They are expected to report back to Johnson by Nov. 30.

On Aug. 29, the same day Johnson made his announcement, the public heard from Wildin Acosta, a 19-year-old who fled violence-wracked Honduras in 2014 to live with family in Durham, North Carolina, only to be detained by ICE and held at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The nation's largest immigration detention center, it's run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest prison company.

Speaking at a press conference in Durham, Acosta began by detailing the fear he experienced in Honduras after receiving death threats from a gang member he encountered at a church youth group. After he got threatening text messages from the gang member, Acosta's parents in North Carolina decided that he needed to leave Honduras and go to the United States for his own safety. He was 17.

For two years Acosta lived quietly, focusing on his studies with an eye to graduating from high school. But one morning back in January, he was arrested by ICE and sent to Stewart.

He described appalling conditions there. How on at least three occasions he found worms in his food. How on the eve of what was supposed to be his high school graduation he was placed in solitary confinement for helping a friend translate a letter to his girlfriend. How he lived with the constant threat of deportation back to a country where his life was in grave danger.

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, immigrant detainees in Georgia are less likely than their counterparts elsewhere to be released on bond and more likely to be deported. But Acosta was relatively lucky because he had a community of teachers, activists, and politicians rallying behind him and demanding his release.

Last month, Acosta was granted a $10,000 bond, which his supporters raised in only two days. Now that he's out of prison, Acosta says he has two goals: to earn the three credits he needs to graduate high school and to help obtain the release of his friends who are still in detention at Stewart.

"I made a promise that I am going to help them get released," Acosta said.

© 2023 Institute for Southern Studies