The Hill: Where is Accountability? Alleged Abuses Persist in ICE Detention

This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower client claims and was originally published here.

More than two years following a whistleblower complaint alleging egregious medical neglect and abuse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), the Senate held its first hearing aimed at providing accountability for rights violations committed against migrant women held there in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

The hearing followed a bipartisan, 18-month investigation initiated by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and the ensuing Report on Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention. The subcommittee’s hearing and report confirmed what migrants formerly detained at ICDC and in detention centers across the country and advocates have claimed for years: ICE failed to ensure adequate oversight of off-site medical providers contracted for the treatment of people held in its custody, and when put on notice of medical neglect and abuse, failed to take the corrective measures required to guard against such abuses, and to ensure adequate medical care at ICDC.

The Senate subcommittee’s report follows a January 2022 report from Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) of its own investigation into alleged abuses at ICDC, instigated by the filing of the September 2020 whistleblower complaint. In its report, OIG found the “facility’s chronic care, continuity of care, and medical policies and procedures to be inadequate,” and highlighted a need for improved communication protocols. It did not address many of the medical abuses women said they endured at Irwin; those allegations were referred for ongoing investigation.

The Senate report helps to fill the significant gaps left open by the OIG report, addressing in detail the claims of medical abuses at Irwin and failures of ICE and LaSalle Corrections, the private prison corporation contracted to operate ICDC, to provide proper oversight and ensure the provision of adequate medical care. It details how the doctor, who is under investigation for his treatment of women patients while at ICDC, conducted 362 invasive OB-GYN procedures from 2017-2020 — one-third of all such procedures provided to those held in ICE custody during that period. These procedures were largely conducted without the women’s consent, the Senate report finds.

As Ossoff stated, the “excessive, invasive, and often unnecessary gynecological procedures” done at ICDC represent “a catastrophic failure by the federal government to respect basic human rights.” Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made similar findings in a hearing in the summer of 2021, in which they recognized that some procedures amounted to torture or cruel and degrading treatment for which reparations should be due.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas finally directed ICE to cease its relationship with Irwin County Detention Center for the detention of immigrants. Unfortunately, that directive was followed by new and expanded contracts with private, for-profit prison corporations in the business of imprisoning immigrants. Notable among those was ICE’s expanded arrangement to incarcerate women at the previously male-only Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., despite reports of medical neglect and abuse at this ICE prison, including the deaths of at least 10 immigrants. Less than a year later, women detained at Stewart filed a complaint alleging accounts of sexual assault at the hands of a nurse, and alleging subsequent mistreatment and the mishandling of their complaints.

The for-profit motive underlying the system of detention, compounded by the government’s efforts to abdicate itself of responsibility and accountability for alleged abuses committed against those held in its custody, aggravates human rights violations endemic to detention.

As Karina Cisneros Preciado, who was transported in shackles and treated with contraceptive shots for a purported ovarian cyst at ICDC, testified during the hearing: “The experience … made me feel like I had no control over my body, no say, no vote.” She stepped forward because, in her words, “this shouldn’t happen to anyone anymore. We’re not animals. We’re human. We’re not just a number.”

To date, the government has taken no action to provide redress to the women who endured procedures at ICDC, nor has it provided redress to family members of migrants who died while in custody at Stewart. The government must take steps to ensure accountability and provide redress for rights violations that occur in detention centers where ICE imprisons people for alleged violations of civil immigration law.

It is time for the United States to own up to its human rights obligations, to stop locking up migrants, and to bring an end to profiteering off their pain.