The Department of Homeland Security announced on Thursday the agency will be shutting down the controversial immigration prison in Georgia where dozens of detained immigrant women were subjected to nonconsensual gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies.
The memo, sent by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, instructs U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to terminate the contract with the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, according to the Washington Post, along with another detention center in Massachusetts. Both facilities are under federal investigation for detention practices.
“This victory, brought about through years of organizing and exposing the abuses, is momentous,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director of Project South, a civil rights organization based in Atlanta.
“This victory, brought about through years of organizing and exposing the abuses, is momentous.”
The detention center, run by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections, was the focus of widespread criticism last fall when Dawn Wooten, a nurse and subsequently whistleblower at the facility, came forward with allegations of pervasive medical neglect and misconduct.
“For over a decade, LaSalle and ICE have ignored, threatened, and even attacked immigrants at Irwin in an attempt to silence them,” said Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney at Project South. “Today matters because the people suffering abuse at Irwin have been seen.”
In her whistleblower allegations, Wooten detailed how the facility’s staff ignored serious medical complaints and failed to take proper precautions against Covid-19 both for the staff and the people detained at the prison. Wooten also alleged detained women were subjected to hysterectomies and other, sometimes unnecessary, gynecological procedures performed without proper informed consent, allegations that spurred widespread international criticism, including congressional investigations.
According to the Washington Post, Mayorkas’s memo said Homeland Security “will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.” In a statement to the Post, Mayorkas said, “DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards. Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action as we are doing today.” (ICE and LaSalle Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the closure memo.)
Mayorkas’s memo closing Irwin also instructed ICE not to renew its contract with the Bristol County immigration detention center in Massachusetts. In December, the Massachusetts attorney general said the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the facility, violated the civil rights of detained immigrants last year, when officials fired pepper spray and pepper projectiles and illegally unleashed dogs on detainees who were demanding Covid-19 protections.
The closures of the Irwin and Bristol detention centers come as the total number of people detained by ICE has increased in recent months, to over 20,000 as of May 14, a high for the Biden administration, but still far lower than the more than 55,000 people who were detained at any given time during the peak months of 2019. It is not clear when the facilities will be officially shuttered, but the Post reported that the Bristol contract would be terminated immediately and DHS would work to sever its contract with Irwin as quickly as possible.
“The closure of the Irwin County Detention Center marks a decisive victory in the long war against white supremacy in the U.S. south and across the globe,” said Kevin Caron, a steering committee member of Georgia Detention Watch. “While they have yet to receive justice, today those who suffered at Irwin have been vindicated. The abuses at Irwin are emblematic of our urgent need to end immigrant detention and abolish ICE.”
Last September, Wooten blew the whistle about conditions at the facility amid the Covid-19 pandemic, first reported by The Intercept. With the assistance of attorneys from the Government Accountability Project, Wooten sent a letter to Congress detailing “misconduct and failures to provide medical care in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.” With Project South, she also submitted a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.
Part of the complaint said that women in detention were being subjected to often unnecessary gynecological procedures conducted without proper consent. Later, in a closed-door meeting with senators on Capitol Hill, attorneys confirmed at least 57 women were subject to the reproductive-system procedures since 2018.
The story, especially the gynecological procedures allegedly performed without consent, was widely covered. Public officials demanded an investigation. A number of the women subjected to the gynecological procedures were subsequently deported, even as advocates demanded that ICE cease the deportations of victims and shutter the facility. The DHS Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the allegations; its findings have not yet been released. (The DHS OIG also launched an investigation into prenatal and gynecological care in other ICE facilities, the findings of which have also not been released.)
Last December, 14 women filed a class-action lawsuit alleging abuse during their time imprisoned in Irwin. The lawsuit claims that the women received nonconsensual procedures performed by Mahendra Amin, a doctor based in rural Georgia who was sent patients from the nearby detention center. Both Amin and his attorney have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. The women claim that ICE and Irwin County Detention Center officials were made aware by detainees of alleged misconduct.
“In many instances, the medically unindicated gynecological procedures Respondent Amin performed on Petitioners amounted to sexual assault,” the lawsuit says. “After Petitioners spoke out, or attempted to speak out, about their abuse, Respondents retaliated against them in order to silence them.”
ICE stopped sending immigrant women to Amin after the allegations of nonconsensual and unnecessary procedures came to light. The FBI is currently investigating Amin for a series of unnecessary, rough, or abusive procedures, according to a report in Prism by Tina Vásquez earlier this month.
Last week, a group of 29 formerly detained immigrants sent a letter to President Joe Biden denouncing abusive practices in immigration detention. In the letter, they also demanded that the Irwin County Detention Center be shut down and all contracts with LaSalle and other for-profit detention companies be terminated.
“Many women faced retaliation from ICE, with some even being deported to prevent them from testifying in any investigations, a tactic frequently employed by ICE to silence and disappear its victims,” the letter reads.
The shuttering of Irwin does not mean that people currently detained in the facility will be released from detention.
Another detention center in rural Georgia, the Stewart Detention Center, has received an influx of women detainees since December 2020, many of them transfers from Irwin. Stewart, which has exclusively detained men for over a decade, is one of the largest ICE detention centers in the country. It is also, according to advocates and nongovernmental trackers, one of the deadliest.
“Transfer of women from one corporate-run detention center with a track record of human rights violations to another deadly one is not going to get ICE off the hook.”
Stewart, which is run by the private prison company CoreCivic, has come under fire by, among others, the DHS Office of Inspector General, for alleged violent abuse against people detained there. Since 2017, eight detainees at Stewart have died. Two men died by suicide after being held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time, despite diagnoses of mental health disorders.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, The Intercept reported that detainees in Stewart demanding improved medical care were pepper-sprayed twice in two weeks by a special unit of private correctional officers akin to a SWAT team. The Intercept also reported that three detainees in wheelchairs were hurled to the ground after asking for better medical care amid the pandemic. According to ICE’s tracker, four people detained at Stewart died from complications after contracting Covid-19.
“We will not rest however until Stewart is also shut down,” said Shahshahani, of Project South. “Transfer of women from one corporate-run detention center with a track record of human rights violations to another deadly one is not going to get ICE off the hook.”
Update: May 20, 2021, 1:04 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to include a comment from Kevin Caron of Georgia Detention Watch.