A Riverside High School student who was taken to a private prison in Georgia earlier this year by federal immigration agents for being in the country illegally was ordered to spend time in solitary confinement this month, the day before he would have graduated from high school.
Wildin Guillen Acosta, a 19-year-old native of Honduras, has been in federal custody at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., since Jan. 28, when he was picked up by ICE agents near his Durham home while on his way to school.
Prison officials placed Acosta in solitary confinement on June 7. This week, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield and other supporters said they think prison officials put him there as retaliation for being an outspoken, high-profile detainee.
“In our experience, a sentence of more than 30 days in solitary is rare and overly punitive,” said Julie Mao, an enforcement fellow with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. The nonprofit in Washington, D.C., works with attorneys who defend immigrants facing deportation.
Mao added that sentencing Acosta to solitary confinement the day before he was set to graduate could have a debilitating effect on the student.
“The timing couldn’t be worse,” she said. “Moreover, the severity of this sentence suggests that Wildin will continue to be the subject of increased surveillance and retaliation” by prison personnel and federal immigration authorities.
Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson whose district includes Durham, echoed Mao’s sentiments in a letter Tuesday to Sarah Saldana, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I am troubled that Mr. Acosta, a 19-year-old without a criminal record and with a pending asylum claim, remains in detention after almost five months and now finds himself in restrictive housing where he could suffer lasting psychological damage,” Butterfield wrote.
Mao said late Wednesday that Acosta’s time in solitary was shortened to 15 days after Butterfield’s letter to Saldana. He was released Thursday, Butterfield’s office announced.
Immigration spokesman Bryan Cox stated in an email to The News & Observer on Wednesday that “ICE has no direct involvement” in the “disciplinary action” of Corrections Corporation of America, which owns and manages the prison. Cox said “disciplinary action for rule violations within a CCA facility is determined by CCA per their policies, which are conducted in accordance with ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards.”
Jonathan Burns, a CCA spokesman, said Acosta received a 15-day sentence that began June 6, but he was released after serving 10 days.
“That happens at the discretion of the facility leadership,” Burns said by phone Thursday night.
“The 15-day restrictive housing time frame is not a reduction; it is the original penalty Mr. Acosta received for the High offense he committed,” Burns wrote in an email Thursday night to The News & Observer.
Mao said Acosta was sentenced to solitary because of the detention center’s “three strikes” within 90 days rule for minor administrative violations: being unsanitary because his bed wasn’t made; being in an unauthorized area for not being at his bedside during sleep time, and refusing to obey an order while helping a fellow inmate translate a letter from Spanish to English.
Burns said CCA followed ICE’s disciplinary standards in handling Acosta’s case. He said only one of the violations – having an unsanitary area – was classified under ICE’s standards as “low-moderate.” The other two are “high-moderate” offenses.
Burns said restrictive housing at the detention center is “not like the traditional notion of solitary confinement” and that Acosta had access to visitation, was allowed to come out for meals, had phone privileges and recreation time.
Acosta was stopped at the Texas border by federal agents in 2014 after fleeing Honduras because of gang violence. He attended a court hearing on Dec. 17, 2014, but failed to show up for one in March 2015. On March 30, 2015, a deportation order was issued, leading to his arrest in January.
Since then, there have been protests and rallies in Durham on his behalf. The Durham school board has condemned the ICE raid, and the county’s Human Relations Commission asked immigration officials to stop deporting young people who fear for their lives if they were to return to countries they fled.
Acosta was scheduled for deportation March 19, but Butterfield and U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, persuaded Saldana to intervene in the case.
Butterfield visited Acosta at the Georgia detention center on May 27 and wrote the letter to Saldana this week.
“I am deeply concerned that the punishment received by Mr. Acosta may be retaliatory in nature, especially with the knowledge that two of the three alleged offenses occurred several days after I visited the detention facility,” Butterfield wrote. “During the visit, I did not see any predisposition on his part to violate the rules. Moreover, I fear Mr. Acosta is not being treated fairly because of the significant attention his case has received by Members of Congress and the national media.”
Acosta would have graduated from Riverside High School on June 8. Acosta’s mother, Dilsia Acosta, was an honored guest at the graduation ceremonies.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Mao said. “He called her the day before and broke down.”
His supporters have said Acosta was hoping to enroll at Durham Tech and study engineering.
Evelyn Smallwood, a Durham attorney, said Acosta’s case for asylum has never been heard on its merits. Mao said immigration officials have not set a date for his asylum hearing.
“And that’s what so egregious,” she said. “He’s spent nearly six months in jail without any signs of release.”