Since the start of 2022, there’s been a 520 percent surge in COVID infections in detention facilities in the U.S. Of the more than 21,000 people currently in detention, over 3,000 are either being monitored or in isolation because of COVID. Georgia is home to some of the country’s largest facilities, and advocates say that COVID measures, have at best, been inadequate.
I spoke with Nilson Barahona, a resident of Lawrenceville, who witnessed firsthand how staff at the Irwin County Detention Center responded (or failed to respond) as news of the pandemic spread inside the facility in 2020. His experience is chronicled in “The Facility,” a documentary directed by Seth Freed Wessler, that investigates conditions at Irwin through exclusive video interviews. The film, which has just been shortlisted for an Oscar, follows the journey of Nilson and Andrea Manrique as they lead a protest against the conditions inside the facility.
Nilson is now back home in Lawrenceville with his wife and 7- year old son after 13 months in the Irwin and Stewart detention centers. For the past year he’s been working to support his family, waiting for his court date so that his application for residency can proceed, and finding ways to support those who are still stuck in detention.
“I still feel like I belong here, I still feel strongly about embracing my rights in this country. The only thing that has changed is my mission. Because I was put in that place, my eyes were opened to this issue. Now I’m just trying to do something as a member of this society to try to fix this problem we’re facing.”
He’s been trying in multiple ways.
In the fall of 2020, he was focused on voter outreach. “As soon as I came out of detention, I started doing canvassing because we knew the importance of the runoff…we started just knocking on doors and telling people the importance of coming out.”
He also co-founded The ICE Breakers - a grassroots group raising awareness about conditions in detention. In January, they rallied alongside immigrant rights advocates outside the Georgia Capitol building, demanding an end to any proposed expansion plans of the Folkston ICE Processing Center.
A month earlier, he was in Washington, D.C. with Georgia Unidas Families, an organization that formed after the nitrogen leak at a poultry facility in Gainesville. They were calling for federal protections for immigrant workers who report workplace abuse.
And - whether it's the result of organizing or not - there have been changes in the last year.
Barahona had been turned over to ICE in 2019 in Gwinnett County, when 287g - the program that authorized local law enforcement to turn residents over to ICE - was in effect.
Now, immigrants without legal status no longer have to worry about 287g. The newly elected sheriff in Gwinnett County terminated the program, along with sheriffs in surrounding counties in January 2021. Barahona was excited to break the news to a friend a few months ago who had been arrested for driving without a license. “His brother was like oh I don’t want to pay that bond. And then I told him no no, there’s no 287g! So you know you don't have that extra stress of thinking of immigration if you get pulled over.”
Another major change - the U.S. government ended its contract with the Irwin County Detention Facility, after a whistleblower alleged that unnecessary medical procedures were being performed on women held at the facility. In September, the last 40 people being held by ICE at Irwin were transferred to other Georgia facilities.
Nilson is originally from Honduras, his wife is a U.S. citizen from Connecticut, and his community in Gwinnett is from all over the world. It's that sense of interconnectedness that keeps him fighting. "I have a very diverse family around me from everywhere in the world....that’s one of the reasons why I was so strongly holding my ground in detention. Because every time I see an African suffering, every time I see a Haitian suffering, every time I see somebody from Asia suffering, every time I see all these people being mistreated, I was seeing my cousins, I was seeing my uncles. I was seeing people I deal with on daily basis. I couldn't allow myself to stay away from the problem."
Top photo: Nilson Barahona speaks to me on video chat from his car.