Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to terminate its contracts with the Irwin County Detention Center “as soon as possible.” The facility, located in Ocilla, about 200 miles south of Atlanta, is owned by the county but run by a private contractor.
“We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system,” Mayorkas said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
In a federal lawsuit filed in December, about 40 women alleged a pattern of medical abuse, cruel retaliation and unsanitary conditions at the Irwin facility, where most of the detainees are awaiting deportation.
“My health has been deteriorating as a result of my 1 year and 6 months at Irwin, but it gives me great pleasure to know it’s over,” Wendy Dowe, a former detainee, told Project South, an Atlanta advocacy group. “I still cry day and night. I still have flashbacks and nightmares when I remember the shackles, the food, the place, and most of all the treatment.”
Pressure had been building on the White House to stop sending immigrants to the facility. At a congressional hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., pressed Mayorkas on whether the Biden administration would make good on its campaign promise to end privately run immigration detention centers.
“This announcement is another step towards ensuring Georgia workers and vulnerable women are not placed in harm’s way, and another step towards ending the use of private prisons in our state for good,” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, also a Democrat, said in a statement.
But the Republican who represents Irwin County in Congress, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton, dismissed the allegations against the facility’s medical staff, namely Dr. Mahendra Amin, accused of forcing unwanted hysterectomies on detainees.
“It’s clearly a political decision,” said Scott, who wants to know if ICE officials were consulted before the decision to sideline the facility was made.
“What do you intend to do with the detainees?” Scott said.
For now, the female immigrants who would’ve gone to Irwin are being taken to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, which recorded one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases of ICE facilities in the nation. Scott said Irwin still houses about 300 detainees, all men.
Project South has been working to shut down Irwin for 10 years, said its legal and advocacy director Azadeh N. Shahshahani.
“The work goes on,” said Shahshahani, referring to the fight to end privately run detention facilities.
Irwin remains open, but subject to a federal investigation.
Last October, a group of medical experts reviewed the complaints of women being held at the detention center and found systemic abuse. Some had been referred to a gynecologist for problems unrelated to their reproductive health and were pressured to undergo unnecessary surgeries without any information about the risks they were incurring, according to the experts’ report.
“Our findings reveal a disturbing pattern that warrants further investigation: one in which many women either underwent abdominal surgery or were pressured to have a surgery that was not medically indicated and to which they did not consent,” the report says.
U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York was among 10 Democratic lawmakers who toured the facility in September. Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson also made the trip. Espaillat gave much of the credit to the “courageous” nurse who blew the whistle in Ocilla, Dawn Wooten.
Wooten called attention to the lack of COVID-19 protocols and testing, plus her concerns about medical procedures performed without detainees’ consent or full knowledge, Espaillat said. That led to scrutiny from federal agencies and members of Congress.
“Some allege there was a level of retribution for women who spoke up,” Espaillat said in explaining why he thought the DHS action was “very appropriate.”
U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said the federal government’s decision to end its relationship with Irwin “is one step closer toward wiping clean” a stain on Georgia’s history. “We must now seek justice for those whose lives were irreparably changed by this inhumane cruelty and full accountability for all those who contributed to it.”