9/15: Prisoners' rights group marches to immigration detention center

LUMPKIN, Ga.- A southwest Georgia civil rights and prison advocacy group ended a weeklong 105-mile march with a protest Saturday outside a private prison that houses about 1,600 undocumented immigrants.

The protest came at the end of the Prison & Jail Project's annual Freedomwalk to highlight what they perceive as racial and social inequities in the criminal justice system in rural southwest Georgia.

The protest happened outside the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison run by the Corrections Corp. of America. The prison opened in October 2006 and with about 500 employees it has become the largest employer in Stewart County, one of the poorest counties in Georgia.

"The prison and jail project opposes the privatization of the prison system. We believe as long as we have prisons, they need to be in the public domain," said the project's founder John Cole Vodicka. "I think it's immoral to make a profit off the misery of human beings. The Corrections Corp. of America is in it to make a profit."

The protesting groups said they also opposed the fact the Stewart Detention Center was located in such a remote area, miles from large cities, that it creates difficulties for visits by inmates' attorneys or family members.

"This is a for-profit prison. Is America about turning prisoners into commodities?" said Anton Flores, a leader of protesting group Alterna. Flores said he planned to visit inmates from El Salvador and Colombia in the prison later Saturday.

"I will let them know that there are people who see them as people," he said.

There were about eight counter-demonstrators from the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and the Atlanta Minuteman Project, who urged strict enforcement of immigration laws and held banners that said, "Enforce our existing laws" and "Secure our borders."

"We definitely support this facility for the deportation of illegal alien criminals in this country. We're proud to support the warden and his staff for doing this job for the American people," said Todd Walker, leader of the Georgia Minuteman Corps.

Vance Laughlin, the prison's warden, said the prison meets the same detention standards as public jails.

"Our role at CCA is to provide detention services for" Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Laughlin said. "We have no say on who comes or who goes. A large percentage of the inmates at this prison are in fact criminal aliens, meaning they not only entered the country illegally but they committed a crime while they are here."

He said he was concerned the demonstrators might heighten emotions inside the prison.

"I support their right to demonstrate but I feel they don't understand the implications inside," he said. "I'm charged with keeping these people safe. This has the potential to create barriers to that."

CCA has 66 prisons around the country, including four in Georgia. The federal government is one of the largest customers of the company, which has been housing undocumented aliens for at least 25 years, Laughlin said.

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