In one of America's poorest places, detaining immigrants is a big business

Ask people around Lumpkin what's changed, and they don't talk much about what's there.They tell you w...

Posted: Aug 24, 2018 2:12 PM
Updated: Aug 24, 2018 2:13 PM

Ask people around Lumpkin what's changed, and they don't talk much about what's there.

They tell you what's gone.

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"It used to be a nice town. It's still nice people. But now there's nothing left."

"We used to have four grocery stores. Now we can't even keep one."

"Even the liquor store didn't make it."

There's a gas station that no longer sells gas, a mold-infested library that no longer has books and a shuttered gift shop that displays Halloween items all year.

One of the city's two restaurants closed this year.

The historic 1850s village museum that once brought hordes of tourists -- and became a point of pride for local leaders -- is leaving, too.

But more than a decade ago, one company came to this rural corner of southwest Georgia and stayed.

Corrections Corporation of America -- since rebranded CoreCivic -- opened the Stewart Detention Center just outside Lumpkin's city limits in 2006.

It's one of the busiest hubs in the US immigration system.

A third of Stewart County's population lives inside.

But driving through town, you wouldn't know it.

The sprawling complex sits at the end of CCA Road, nestled in a wooded area set back from the main drag that runs through Lumpkin's sleepy downtown.

Visit the desolate town square in the Stewart County seat and you'll come across a range of views about the detention center. One common take: It's one of the few remaining engines fueling the area's economy.

***

The protesters used to march past Regina Wieczorek's house on Main Street once a year.

The first time, she heard drums banging before she saw them.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

The 64-year-old retired nurse says the recurring sight of protesters railing against the Stewart Detention Center was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever seen.

"They come all the way from Arizona to walk four miles," she says.

Wieczorek says she's seen plenty of out-of-state license plates driving into the town square, but she's never seen anyone from Lumpkin marching in the "Shut Down Stewart" protests.

To Wieczorek, there's no doubt that the detention center, which can house nearly 2,000 detainees and employs hundreds of people, is the best place to work in town.

"You're lucky if you can get a job there," she says.

Wieczorek came to Lumpkin in 2000 from Maryland, where she'd been working as a nurse in a 3,000-inmate prison. Her brother was among Stewart County political and business leaders who'd lobbied for a state prison to be built in Lumpkin, and she hoped to land a job there once it opened.

"I moved here and built my house because of that prison," she says.

Construction crews began building the prison in 1998, but after state backing dried up, the building sat empty for years -- until 2006, when the private prison company announced it had found a new government partner: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Stewart Detention Center opened later that year, hailed by local leaders as a boon that would bring jobs.

"This is the biggest thing to happen to Stewart County since I've been here," the chairman of the county commission said at the time. "Everything's been leaving rather than coming."

More than a decade later, local officials are still swift to praise the facility, though some acknowledge it wasn't the business boon they expected.

"It doesn't provide as many local jobs as we thought it would, but there are a lot of local people that work there," Lumpkin Mayor Pro-Tem Barbara Cullefer says.

Even the mayor works there. But, Cullefer says, "a lot of local people who were hoping to work there can't pass all the background checks."

Ultimately, health troubles kept Wieczorek from getting a job there. But she's still happy to have it in the town she calls home. She remembers touring the building before it opened, marveling at the tall, skinny windows.

She doesn't see anything wrong with putting people who came to the United States illegally behind bars.

"If you do something wrong," she says, "you go to prison."

***

The sign on the window of one of the few downtown stores often catches visitors' attention.

"CHRISTIAN GUN SALES."

But guns aren't the only items on the shelves. In addition to the rifles her husband sells, Marilyn Christian tries to stock a little bit of what everybody needs, from school uniforms to hair extensions.

For years, she was a sergeant at the Stewart Detention Center. Now, she runs an accounting business out of her shop.

There's no question the detention center brought desperately needed jobs and pays hefty taxes and fees to Stewart County each year, she says.

But Christian says she has a question for local officials: Where does the money go?

"I don't see any results," she says. "I don't see them allowing it to benefit us."

***

Mac Moye steps through the tall weeds, pulls out his smartphone and snaps a photo as a backhoe tears through an abandoned butcher shop.

Stewart County is changing, and Moye -- the county manager -- is here to document it.

In a few hours, his photos will be on the county's Facebook page. One shows the backhoe taking a bite out of the brick in what Moye describes as a "sad-sweet moment in the county's history." Another shows the backhoe's bucket reaching into the sky, curling around the clock tower atop the Stewart County courthouse.

It looks like the crew is about to tear down the main building in town. But it's just an optical illusion.

The courthouse is here to stay.

From his second-floor office there, Moye is trying to chart a new course for the county he's called home all his life.

You don't have to drive far to see the problems in Stewart County. Ruined houses, empty storefronts and overgrown grass are visible on just about every street in Lumpkin.

What happened?

"There's no mystery here," Moye says.

The rural county's economy centered on cotton in the 1800s, then shifted toward timber in the 1950s. Now, that industry is struggling.

The population has been declining for well over a century.

It peaked in 1850 at just over 16,000. The latest estimate: 5,985 people, according to 2017 figures from the US Census Bureau; that includes the nearly 2,000 detainees inside Stewart.

And the way outsiders see the county hasn't always been flattering.

So many Latino immigrants are behind bars at the detention center that it earned Stewart County a surprising distinction. In a 2013 analysis of Census data published by the Pew Research Center, Stewart County saw the largest growth in Latino population in America. Demographers noted the detention center was likely the reason.

Last year, a Census Bureau report pointed to Stewart County as one of the five poorest places in the country. And a Yahoo! Finance ranking labeled it one of the worst places to live in the United States. The percentage of families in poverty: 38.4%. The median household income: $20,882. Compare those to the national figures: 11% and $55,322.

Old businesses close here more quickly than new ones open.

The sawmill shuttered. Freight trains stopped coming through town. Even the hospital went out of business.

Today, the building that once housed the butcher shop met its end, making way for a new home for the county's emergency medical service vehicles.

For every abandoned building, Moye sees an opportunity. Already, he says, companies like Omaha Brewing and Richland Rum saw promise in Stewart County's vast farmland and small-town feel, set up shop and grew. Moye hopes more will follow suit.

Other small Southern counties have turned things around, he says.

And they didn't have one thing Stewart has going for it.

The detention center just a mile from Moye's office is a source of money that keeps the county financially solvent.

Other than the school district, it's the county's top employer.

It brings people to the area from all over the region.

And for local students, he says, it's an added incentive to graduate from high school, since the requirements to work there include having a diploma or GED.

The facility isn't the only engine fueling the county's economy, Moye says, but it's a significant contributor.

The challenge: Convincing the hundreds who work at the detention center -- and family members visiting loved ones inside -- not just to pass through Stewart County but to stop or even stay.

"As a county, we haven't made a concerted effort to market to those people," he says. "So far, it just hasn't happened to any extent."

Moye bristles at social media posts he's seen accusing Stewart County of profiting off the people who are held in the detention center.

"It's not the people of Stewart County that have that place out there," he says. "It's ICE."

But every day, the county earns money from the detention center, thanks to an agreement with the private company that owns the facility and federal immigration authorities.

For each detainee housed inside the center each day, ICE sends the county $62.76. The county forwards most of that to CoreCivic but keeps 85 cents as an administrative fee. That may sounds like pocket change, but it adds up to more than half a million dollars a year in the county's coffers, according to a 2016 audit.

Combine that with the property tax CoreCivic pays -- estimated at more than $400,000 a year, according to the county's website -- and the detention center funds about a quarter of the county's $4 million-plus annual budget. That contribution is almost as much as the county spends each year on its sheriff's department, and more than the probate court, health department and elections and tax assessor's offices combined.

It's not clear exactly how much money CoreCivic makes from Stewart. In a recent lawsuit, immigrant rights advocates put the figure at $38 million in annual revenue. Last year, the company reported more than $1.7 billion in revenue nationally, with a net income of more than $178 million from more than 70 facilities CoreCivic owns or manages. A quarter of the company's revenue comes from ICE.

***

Twice a week, JoAnn Brazier puts on a long skirt and flowing blouse and heads downtown.

She's Lumpkin's innkeeper.

There's no hotel where visitors can spend the night in Lumpkin. A two-story 1836 stagecoach inn that once housed the town's doctor is the closest thing the city's got.

It was renovated in the 1960s and reopened as a museum as part of a push by city leaders to cultivate Lumpkin's image as a historic destination.

And Brazier, sometimes with her husband by her side, keeps watch on Friday and Saturday afternoons for any visitors who might stop by and want a tour.

In one room, there are shamrocks carved over the doors. Another room features a rocking chair with a wide seat; it was made -- Brazier points out -- at the time when women wore large bustles under their dresses. Back then, Dr. Bryan Bedingfield and his family charged guests 12½ cents a night to stay here.

Down the street, another historic museum invites guests to explore a drug store replica with a 1950s soda fountain and 19th century apothecary jars on the shelves. Between several abandoned storefronts in the town square, it sits frozen in time. Brazier gives tours there, too.

Inside, the air is stale and stifling. Someone stole the air conditioners a few years ago for the copper, Brazier says.

On the counter, three bright orange bumper stickers are lined up in a row.

"STEWART COUNTY IS LOOKING for INDUSTRY!"

There are dots inside the O's in "looking," turning the letters into eyeballs keeping watch for the next business boon.

The bumper stickers have been there so long, Brazier can't remember who made them.

"They've been here ever since I've been here," she says. They were intended to help solve a problem the city's been facing for a while.

"Because there is no industry anymore. There is none whatsoever."

The detention center, she says, is one of the few things that's given the economy a boost.

"It's been good because of the jobs. It's helped," she says. "There's nothing for the young people to do, so they move."

***

Sweat pours down Rusty Bradshaw's face as he stands outside the garage he owns just a few blocks from Lumpkin's town square.

A man stops by to drop off a truckload of tires. A state trooper who needs work on his patrol car pulls in.

Bradshaw is one of the few mechanics in town, and today, business isn't bad.

But the city where he was born and raised has changed dramatically over the years.

"It used to be a nice town," he says. "It's still nice people. But there's nothing left."

The 59-year-old mechanic says young people who can leave Stewart County do -- and most never return.

"The older people died. The younger people moved away. When they went up to college, they didn't come back."

Bradshaw's son left Lumpkin for college in Columbus, Georgia, the big city 35 miles up the road. He's not expecting him to move back when he graduates.

"I don't blame him."

The nearby detention center hasn't done much for the city, he says. Most people who work there don't seem to be local residents.

But it hasn't hurt, either.

"We have no problem with it. You don't even know they're there," he says of the immigrant detainees. "They've gotta be somewhere."

***

The crooning started just after dark.

When did you stop loving me? How long have I been a memory?

Mitzi Lynch surveyed the scene with a satisfied smile. It was karaoke night at Big Papas on a summer evening in 2017, and the bar on the outskirts of Lumpkin was packed.

Lynch and her husband ran this business, sharing space with a convenience store his family owned. Polaroids covering the walls showed people with their first kills of the hunting season.

Two nights a week, Mitzi and Chad Lynch served up hot food and cold drinks.

It was one of several jobs they held down, until Big Papas closed its doors earlier this year. That's the way it is in Stewart County, Mitzi says.

"Everybody is struggling," she says. "Jobs are terrible if you don't work for CCA, the school system or the county."

Sure, the detention center isn't glamorous. But it's something people in the county try to make the best of.

"If it wouldn't have been for CCA, there's no telling where we'd be. ... If it would not have been for them, taxes would have been so high, nobody would have been able to pay them."

Some Stewart County residents expected the facility would bring a major economic boost, she says. And at first, it did.

People building and working at the facility moved into town, renting vacant houses. But they didn't stay for long.

"The money did come into the county," she says. "But then it went out."

Many moved to Eufaula, Alabama, and Columbus, both about a half-hour drive away but with more amenities and entertainment options.

And over time, she says, it seems fewer and fewer people who live in Stewart County could get jobs at the center.

Still, she says, it puts money back into the community, sponsoring youth football and other events.

"If we didn't have that chunk of money, we'd be in trouble."

***

The hulking detention center itself was once among the abandoned buildings dotting the Stewart County landscape. But by the time it made its official debut in 2006, the local newspaper gave it top billing and described it as "state-of-the-art."

Ron Provencher remembers that day. It was a long time coming.

"Obviously some people were against it. But not folks with common sense," says Provencher, publisher of the Stewart Webster Journal Patriot-Citizen. "You're talking a million dollars in revenue for the county. Stewart County's one of the poorest in the state, so obviously they weren't going to turn that down."

Provencher and his wife have owned the newspaper, with a circulation of about 4,600 across five counties, for two decades.

He covers stories, helps coordinate ad sales and hand-delivers the weekly editions.

Over the years, he says, the newspaper has run stories about new wardens, along with ads congratulating the center's employees of the month.

About a month after the center opened, officials took him to see a deportation flight depart from the Columbus airport.

Years later, it's still a story he looks back on fondly.

"It was like a dadgum movie," he says.

The detention center has given him plenty to cover over the years.

When it opened, the front-page story focused on the topic dignitaries emphasized at the ribbon-cutting: jobs.

"Over 90% of those hired are from the local area," the newspaper reported.

The story didn't dwell much on who would be held at the facility.

"While inmates may be geographically distant from their home state or country, they are never far from the customs and culture that sustains their traditions and connection to their homeland. CCA strives to replicate those regional and cultural aspects of inmate life, ethnic and religious observation. Additionally, education and recreation activities specific to a certain culture."

Provencher says locals are happy about the detention center, even though from time to time, protesters converge on the county and march. Provencher has watched from the sidelines. He's made a point of only writing about demonstrators who trespassed and got arrested -- not about the protests themselves.

"I didn't feel like I need to give the yahoos protesting any attention."

***

A truck driver leans against his rig's front bumper. A work crew stands by the side of the road, waiting for word their day can begin.

This stretch of Stewart County used to hum with the bustle of thousands of visitors. It hosted holiday festivals, visiting politicians and the occasional movie crew.

For decades, school groups flocked to this corner of rural Georgia for a chance to step back in time and visit a village that celebrated the Old South. Historic Westville boasted a blacksmith, a cotton gin and a fiddling festival.

Now this road just outside Lumpkin is still and quiet. The sign that touts Westville as the place "where it's always 1850" says CLOSED. A rusty chain locks the front gate.

It's the 21st century now, and the nonprofit living history museum is the latest thing leaving Stewart County.

A patrol car pulls up on the two-lane road. The work crew springs into action.

The truck driver revs his engine.

A man in a neon vest starts taking pictures as the truck pulls out.

If you close your eyes and listen, it sounds like one of the dozens of logging trucks that barrel through Stewart County daily.

But this truck isn't toting timber.

It's towing half a house.

The boarded-up building is one of dozens leaving Lumpkin as part of the museum's move to Columbus.

Westville's leaders said a bigger city was the only way to save it from flagging attendance.

For years, Lumpkin residents begged them to reconsider. They held community meetings, protested outside the gates and organized an online campaign. Westville had been a point of community pride since locals brought the buildings to Stewart County in the 1960s. Some residents volunteered for decades. Others had donated their ancestors' homes to the collection.

Uprooting Westville, they warned, would be like moving the Alamo or Mount Rushmore.

"When I moved up here 32 years ago, there was a lot of stores in Richland and Lumpkin. But over the years everything is gone. The hospital is no longer here. If you get hurt or need medical help you have to go 50 miles south, 35 miles north, 25 miles east," one woman wrote on the "Save Westville" website. "Please vote to keep the only thing that we have left in Stewart County."

The protests weren't enough to convince the leaders of Westville.

And now Stewart County residents are watching the historic village they helped build get taken away, piece by piece -- and wondering, what will be next?

More from 'Inside America's Hidden Border'

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Two lawyers. One court. And their fight against the odds.

Their loved ones are behind bars. Their lives are on hold. This house gives them hope.

About this series

CNN reported the stories in this series over the course of more than a year, conducting dozens of interviews and making multiple visits to the privately run, all-male Stewart Detention Center -- one of more than 200 facilities across the United States where immigrants facing deportation are held. The facility has the capacity to house nearly 2,000 detainees. Some have significant criminal histories. Others ended up in the crosshairs of immigration authorities when they were pulled over for traffic offenses. And some are seeking asylum after recently crossing the border.

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