Inside the Immigrant Detention Center: Blood and business, lives and lies
This article features our client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
At the same time as the U.S. Department of State proudly ranked the country among the best performers (Tier 1) in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, children at the Donna Immigration Detention Center in Texas were huddling together, sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor under foil blankets in cramped makeshift rooms. Women at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia were shivering at the risk of having hysterectomy with neither full understanding nor consent. Men going on hunger strike against detention and unbearable conditions were subjected to forced hydration, forced urinary catheterization and retaliatory deportations at the Eloy Detention Center and the Florence Detention Center, Arizona.
While Secretary of State Antony Blinken preaches that he will “advance around the world the security, prosperity and values that U.S. citizens share,” there lies the other side of America confined in dark, crowded camps in the deserts across the long, often fenced U.S.-Mexico border, where nearly 27,000 immigrants are currently held at more than 200 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers under the Department of Homeland Security. The number of detainees almost doubled from 14,000 early this year.
Immigrants fall prey to this government-sponsored large-scale human trafficking project, in which they are jailed for long periods in private prisons with little accountability, suffering from rampant disease, dangerous food and a wide range of physical and psychological abuses, including beatings, a climate of fear and intimidation, racial slurs and discrimination. In many cases they are forced to provide free or nearly free labor under threat of isolation, retaliation and other deprivations. At Hutto Detention Center, Texas, for example, it is alleged that detainees are asked to clean, maintain, and operate the facility for $1 or $2 per day. Those who are not “volunteered” to work are threatened with the denial of basic human services. It is no coincidence that deadly conditions have resulted in deadly consequences. Between January 2017 and April 2020, 39 adults died in ICE custody or immediately after being released.
This spring, outside the camps and beyond the deserts, the U.S. was celebrating freedom and recovery thanks to the mass vaccination program, while detention centers were still left behind in the apocalypse of COVID-19. More than 7,500 cases have been detected since April. Access to sanitation and adequate healthcare was a chronic problem before the pandemic, and the mismanagement of COVID-19 worsened the situation. The maintenance of an adequate social distance turns out to be impossible as detention facilities are approved to open at 100 percent capacity. At Etowah County Detention Center, Alabama, people were punished for asking for a COVID-19 test. Nearly 75 percent of detainees in the ICE detention center in Farmville, Virginia have contracted the virus, unfolding a series of humanitarian crises.
For women, life at the detention center could be a flashback to the horrifying American history of forced sterilizations, or a hideous nightmare of endless violence and sexual assault. In a CNN report, Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at Irwin County Detention Center described a particular gynecologist there as “the uterus collector” who applied a hysterectomy on every patient. One female detainee reveals that “this was like an experimental concentration camp.” Professor Alexandra Minna Stern at the University of Michigan called it “a recent episode in a much longer trajectory of sterilization abuse and reproductive injustice” featuring 32 U.S. states historically passing eugenics sterilization laws to sterilize about 60,000 people in compulsory, involuntary procedures. Women at nearly all detention centers are in constant fear of systematic sexual assault by guards. As victims usually face deportation soon, it’s never easy to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Some may argue that perhaps the U.S. government is trying to reduce the number of detention centers since it claims to combat human trafficking. This has not happened yet. ICE states plainly in its own Congressional Budget Justification for FY 2021 that it wanted more funds for detention expansion. Moreover, as of January 2020, 81 percent of people in ICE custody were held in facilities owned or managed by private prison corporations, including CoreCivic Inc. and GEO Group, according to online journalism organization the Marshall project, both of which have grossly enriched themselves by keeping more immigrants incarcerated. When their plans of building new detention facilities encounter protests, lobbyists are immediately hired to convince local officials. Also, the ICE system allows for-profit prisons to avoid responsibility through pass-through arrangements and long-term contract extensions. That’s how government and business go hand in hand to turn lives of immigrants into cashes in the pockets of big-bellied bosses.
If we were to review the year’s most inaccurate statements to elevate one as the Lie of the Year, this “award” should go to the U.S. giving itself top marks in anti-human trafficking drive. This ranking epitomizes politics first, humans last. Like the downplay and denial of the coronavirus, it could be equally damaging and deadly. When a country fails to honestly assess its own human rights failings, it loses credibility and the ability to persuade other countries to do better.