On Tuesday, for the first time in 19 months, Pedro Guzman left Stewart Detention Center, a privately run facility where he was housed while fighting deportation. The Lumpkin, Ga., detention center is one of many run by Corrections Corporation of America, a prison giant that believes its next major market is immigrant detentions.
Georgia may be its next frontier. The state’s anti-illegal immigration bill, styled after Arizona’s SB 1070, was signed into law last week. The result could be more immigrants in detention — and more profits for CCA, which has been accused of mistreating detainees and cutting down on amenities to improve profits.
CCA, as reported by NPR last year, was in the room when SB 1070 author Russell Pearce, now Arizona state Senate president, unveiled his plans for the bill at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Guzman said he saw firsthand how CCA makes its money by spending as little as possible on the men and women in detention centers.
“There’s so much money they make from us, but they’re not investing any money in detainees,” he said in an interview. “The treatment you get is like you’re an animal. I have two dogs, and I treat my dogs much better than the detainees are treated in there.”
Guzman, who turns 31 on Thursday, moved to the United States from Guatemala with his mother when he was 8 years old. He is married to an American, Emily Guzman, and is the father of a 4-year-old citizen named Logan.
For about a year an a half, the Guzman family was separated by the immigrant detention system. The difficulties of communication from the CCA-run facility made the separation worse.
Guzman was granted a green card on Monday, and will be allowed to stay in the United States under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which allows some immigrants from Guatemala to stop deportation proceedings. But he said he is “still healing” from the 19-month detention, during which he said detainees were yelled at, crammed into close quarters and given little communication with the outside world.
He was not convicted of a crime, but Guzman said he was treated like a prisoner, despite an effort launched by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in October 2009 to make detention centers less punitive.
Detainees in the Stewart Detention Center stay in “pods,” where 62 men sleep in bunk beds about two feet apart, Guzman said. In the center of the room are about six tables, where the men can eat food they buy from the commissary.
Guzman said he saw some physical abuse, mostly when guards were provoked by detainees who talked back. More common, though, was verbal abuse. Many of the guards yelled at detainees regularly, creating an atmosphere of near-constant screaming in the pods.
“It’s just made to break your soul and handicap you,” Guzman said.
He said Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials discouraged detainees from pushing for an individual response to their case, because the high-level of deportations requires most to go through courts where a judge rules on several cases at a time.
“They’re not there to help you,” Guzman said. “Ninety percent of the officers will tell you you have no chance to fight, just go to court and we will remove you and take care of the rest.”
With new detainees entering every night, guards changed the rules and procedures often, creating confusion and tension for long-term detainees like Guzman. He said a major source of stress was a new phone system implemented midway through his detention that prevented him from calling his mother in Mexico.
Calls within the United States were expensive, and phone cards only allowed him to talk for about 11 minutes. When his family visited, they had to talk to Guzman through a glass barrier.
Now, Guzman has been reunited with his family. On Wednesday evening, they were driving home to North Carolina.
“I felt like I was never going to get out of there and like I was never going to be in the U.S. again,” he said. “Many times I felt like quitting, just giving up. But changes can happen.”
WATCH: Brave New Foundations’ Cuéntame gives more information about Corrections Corporation of America’s lobbying for anti-illegal immigration laws in this video. The group plans to feature Guzman in a video as part of its Immigrants For Sale campaign.