Despite an announcement that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Irwin County Detention Center could be closed, people continue to be transferred into the detention facility, according to multiple sources interviewed by The Intercept. Last week, at least 34 people were transferred into Irwin from other detention centers, according to advocates on the ground and people detained in the facility, adding to the logistical difficulty of closing it and possibly delaying its shuttering.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently announced that the agency would be severing its contract with the private prison company that runs Irwin, LaSalle Corrections. The facility in Ocilla, Georgia, had become the subject of controversy and questions about rights abuses after allegations surfaced that detained women underwent unnecessary gynecological procedures — allegations that the orders to shut the facility obliquely mentioned.
“This facility, which has a long and well-documented history of inflicting horrific abuse and neglect on people held there, should be immediately closed once and for all.”
“This facility, which has a long and well-documented history of inflicting horrific abuse and neglect on people held there, should be immediately closed once and for all,” said Diego Sánchez, a Georgia-based direct services attorney with Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. “It is beyond disappointing that nearly two weeks since the directive to close Irwin as soon as possible, ICE continues to confine immigrants at Irwin and other horrific facilities across the country. Enough is enough.”
Whistleblower Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at Irwin, detailed a host of medical abuses to The Intercept last fall, bringing international scrutiny and prompting congressional investigations into the facility.
One detainee currently housed at Irwin told The Intercept that it’s been “business as usual” in the facility since Mayorkas’s announcement of the closure. Benjamin Edetanlen, 43, who has been detained at the facility for almost 16 months and faces imminent deportation to England, confirmed that other people have been transferred into Irwin during the past week but could not specify the number. “Nothing has changed, nothing is changing,” Edetanlen said, describing the prevailing mood in Irwin.
Edetanlen also relayed an account given to him by two guards at the prison of an all-staff meeting called by David Paulk, the detention center’s warden. He said that guards have been claiming that the warden told them that “the newspapers are lying” and that staff have no need to worry about Irwin closing.
According to a source familiar with day-to-day operations at Irwin, who requested anonymity for fear of professional reprisals, guards and other staff members are saying that the closure of Irwin was a “rumor” and that operations would continue as usual. (ICE, Paulk, and LaSalle did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the timing of Irwin’s closure nor the continued arrival of immigration detainees there.)
After publication of this story, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security pointed The Intercept to remarks made by Mayorkas in the May announcement of impending detention center closures. “We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system,” Mayorkas said in the statement. “This marks an important first step to realizing that goal. 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.”
Whether ICE seriously pursues ending its contract with LaSalle to house immigration detainees at Irwin raises thorny questions about the Biden administration’s promises to rein in abuses in immigration enforcement and, more broadly, in private-run federal detention.
“They don’t have the political will,” said Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, an advocacy group, expressing skepticism about the Biden administration’s sluggishness to act on the pledges to close Irwin and roll back private detention. “Immigrants may still be detained there. They just want to perform. ICE is saying they want to back out, but what does that actually look like? It’s sort of a flimsy thing.”
Following Mayorkas’s announcement, ICE could have ended its operations at Irwin by Friday, June 18, according to the contract and a legal analysis of it performed by an advocacy group. The memo, in which Mayorkas announced the shuttering, originally posted by CBS News, calls on acting ICE Director Tae Johnson to prepare to discontinue use of Irwin by, among other things, facilitating “the movement to a different facility or facilities those detained individuals whose continued detention is needed to achieve our national security, public safety, and border security mission.”
ICE’s agreement with Irwin is based on a rider in a contract between LaSalle, the private prison firm, and the U.S. Marshals Service, a law enforcement agency operating under the Department of Justice. The Marshals Service, which is in charge of holding federal pretrial detainees, does not own any facilities. Instead, the agency holds people in a network of around 1,200 county jails, local facilities, and private prisons that have contracts with the Marshals Service. According to the contract, LaSalle is currently earning $71.29 per person per day for detaining migrants — solely referred to as “prisoners” in the contract — for the government.
It is not uncommon for ICE to detain people through rider clauses in Marshals Service contracts. According to a January report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in 2019 ICE was detaining people in 185 facilities throughout the country. Of those, 62 of the facilities were through riders in Marshals Service contracts. In total, the report found that 17 percent of the average daily ICE population is detained in facilities through riders in Marshals Service contracts.
The Intercept reviewed the Irwin contract between LaSalle and the Marshals Service, as well as a legal analysis of the contract commissioned by the #DetentionKills program at Al Otro Lado, an immigrant advocacy group. The contract has no specified end date for the intergovernmental service agreement, but the Marshals could issue notice and terminate the contract within 30 days. The advocates’ legal analysis concluded that there was “no potential liability for the US Marshals Service to terminate and end the agreement under this provision.”
If ICE follows through on ending its contract with Irwin, detention operations may continue with pretrial federal detainees still being locked up in the facility under the custody of the Marshals Service, according to that agency’s contract with LaSalle. There are currently 124 people under the Marshals’ custody detained at Irwin, according to the agency.
“This calls into question what the EO actually stands for. This flies in the face of what Biden has claimed.”
“Generally speaking, the U.S. Marshals Service makes housing decisions based upon various factors such as security, availability of bed space in a particular facility, court appearances and other factors,” a spokesperson for the Marshals Service said. “The U.S. Marshals Service has no responsibility for, or involvement in, the custody of ICE detainees. While the U.S. Marshals Service allows ICE as an authorized agency on some of our intergovernmental agreements for detention services with state and local jail facilities, ICE can operate under those agreements and/or separate agreements, of which we have no involvement.”
An arrangement continuing federal detention at Irwin would seem to run afoul of an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on January 26. (Biden’s order did not address private immigration detention companies.) In Youngstown, Ohio, the Marshals recently renegotiated a contract with for-profit prison company CoreCivic to hold federal detainees, seemingly in direct contravention to Biden’s order.
“This calls into question what the EO” — executive order — “actually stands for,” said Shah, the Detention Watch Network official. “This flies in the face of what Biden has claimed.”
Biden’s federal government budget for the fiscal year 2022 increased funds for ICE oversight but maintained nearly identical levels of funding for immigration detention as the Trump administration. Biden’s budget funds 32,500 detention beds; last year’s budget, under Trump, funded 34,000 beds.
For advocates working on immigrants’ behalf, the continued massive capacity, coupled with the news that Irwin was still accepting detainees, raised alarms.
“Given what we have learned about the systematic violence against immigrants’ bodies at Irwin, we need ICE to come clean about what is happening at ICE prisons nationwide,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, an advocacy group based in Georgia. “Immigrants cannot have their bodily integrity at the mercy of ICE and the private prisons corporations the agency contracts with.”
Advocates and a detainee also spoke of continued troubling reports from inside Irwin with regard to medical issues, particularly the coronavirus pandemic. The alleged medical abuse is what brought Irwin under scrutiny in the first place, after The Intercept first wrote about Wooten, the whistleblower who detailed abuse and neglect. Wooten initially spoke out to bring attention to the poor implementation of protocols related to the pandemic.
“It’s classic Irwin, flouting whatever is coming down from the top.”
Edetanlen, the detainee, said that Covid-19 protocols are still being flouted, with guards packing people detained there into rooms where it is impossible to socially distance, as well as staff ignoring sick call requests, even from people with Covid-19 symptoms. Edetanlen also told The Intercept that the medical ward remains filthy, with roaches, other insects, and mold. “It’s classic Irwin,” Edetanlen said, with the facility “flouting whatever is coming down from the top.”
After The Intercept published Wooten’s allegations about medical misconduct, primarily related to the coronavirus pandemic, widespread national attention turned to detained women at Irwin who described being subjected to unnecessary gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies, without their informed consent. So far, 57 women have spoken out about the gynecological procedures they were subjected to. Fourteen women have filed a class-action lawsuit against ICE, LaSalle, and the doctor responsible for the procedures. (The Marshals Service did not respond when asked whether women in their custody would still be detained in Irwin.)
Viridiana Fuentes, a community organizer who has protected immigration status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and who visits people detained at Irwin, told The Intercept: “The federal government owes a debt it has not begun to pay to victims of ICE.” Fuentes added that many of the victims in Irwin “risked everything to expose abuse and all of whom should be free.”
Update: June 4, 2021
This story has been updated to include remarks Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made at the announcement of detention center closures, which a department spokesperson pointed The Intercept to after publication.