ICE Terminating Contract with Irwin County Detention Center
Survivors of medical and gynecological abuse commend Biden administration's decision to sever its contract with privately-run ICE facility in Ocilla, Georgia, but say the work is not done
For Immediate Release
May 20, 2021
The Biden administration announced this morning that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will sever its ties with the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a private prison operated by LaSalle Corrections in Ocilla, Georgia, after over 40 immigrant women came forward with their experiences of medical and gynecological abuse at the facility, as well as retaliation for speaking out about it. Survivors who experienced and witnessed such abuse at ICDC are pleased with this development but say the administration must do more to protect immigrants from severe harm.
"This victory is for all of us who suffered these abuses while detained there," said Lourdes, an ICDC survivor. "I am grateful that we were seen and heard and that the government acted. They heard us that we are not just inmigrantes but human beings."
Andrea, another ICDC survivor, said, "Today, we survivors celebrate the first step to closing and cancelling ICE contracts for places like the Irwin County Detention Center. I ask that every act that was committed in this place of horror be paid for and justice done on behalf of every survivor."
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has directed ICE to sever its contracts with LaSalle Corporation, "as soon as possible," according to the Washington Post. In justifying this decision, Secretary Mayorkas explicitly noted that ICDC is under federal investigation for complaints of abuse against immigrants, the Washington Post reported.
Today's announcement comes after years of work by advocates in Georgia, and eight months after Project South and partners filed an Office of Inspector General (OIG) complaint detailing horrific accounts by detained immigrants and whistleblower Dawn Wooten about the abuse and neglect that immigrants were experiencing. This included medically unnecessary, non-consensual, and invasive gynecological procedures by Dr. Mahendra Amin.
The survivors' stories, recounted in the federal class action Oldaker v. Giles complaint, chronicle the experiences of dozens of women who were pressured by Dr. Amin to undergo invasive surgery or who had gynecological procedures performed on them without their informed consent. Some women did not speak English and were not provided an interpreter to explain the medical procedures. Advocates have characterized these human rights abuses as constituting yet another chapter in the United States' history of forced sterilization of women of color.
The Oldaker v. Giles class action lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in December 2020 by the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, Dreyer Sterling, Project South, and six pro bono legal clinics from five law schools across the country, including the University of Georgia School of Law, Columbia Law School, Texas A&MUniversity School of Law, Boston University School of Law, and Harvard Law School.
For months, these clinics, in partnership with community organizers and advocacy organizations in Georgia, have worked for the release of individuals from ICDC due to the dangerous health risks posed by COVID-19 in congregate settings. Several women spoke about their fear of contracting COVID-19 in a video uploaded to YouTube in April of last year, and subsequently suffered retaliation by ICDC officials for doing so, including physical assault and lengthy solitary confinement.
When the class action lawsuit was filed, there were around 70 women and 350 men in ICE detention at ICDC. Now about 114 immigrants remain detained in ICDC out of a total of nearly 1,000 available beds. The Biden administration determined that ICDC is "no longer operationally necessary," stated a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agent, the Washington Post reported.
"I am proud of the success of closing this slaughterhouse," said survivor Lourdes, who described herself and other women detained there as being treated like animals.
"This is the first step to the closure of all ICE detentions, since these places should never have existed," survivor Andrea said. "This closure is clear proof that their existence is totally unnecessary, unjust, and against the fundamental rights of the immigrant."
"I have peace to know that another mother is not going to go through the same nightmare I went through," said Wendy Dowe, also an ICDC survivor.
"Thank you so much to everyone who actually took the time to hear our cries for help, not just as a correctional facility but as a whole community," survivor Maribel said.
ICE's termination of its contract with ICDC is a monumental win for the individuals, past and present, detained at ICDC. But we cannot ignore the reality that one of the reasons why ICDC has become "operationally unnecessary" is because in recent months ICE has been transferring individuals from ICDC to Stewart Detention Center, another ICE-contracted facility operated by private prison company, CoreCivic, in Lumpkin, Georgia. Four individuals detained at Stewart have died from COVID-19. Detained immigrants at Stewart also face harm and abuse similar to that at ICDC, according to a report by El Refugio titled "Cage of Fear: Medical Neglect and Abuse in Stewart Detention Center During the COVID-19 Pandemic."
Biden stated that within his first 100 days in office, he would "[e]nsure that [ICE] and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel abide by professional standards and are held accountable for inhumane treatment." This promise bears directly on the survivors of ICDC who experienced profound medical abuse and neglect at the hands of ICDC personnel as well as Dr. Mahendra Amin. Holding detention personnel "accountable for inhumane treatment," as Biden promises, requires holding accountable the entire web of individuals and agencies that were responsible for the egregious acts of underlying abuse and subsequent violations of survivors' First Amendment rights to speak freely without retaliation.
The Biden administration must immediately provide certifications for U Visas and deferred action for the women survivors, in recognition of the essential role their courage and cooperation has played in exposing the human rights abuses at ICDC. This would serve the Biden administration's interest in "preserv[ing] evidence and witnesses needed for ongoing investigations." We also urge the administration to facilitate the return of deported ICDC survivors to the U.S. These investigations would not be possible without the bravery of the many heroic women who experienced or witnessed the abuse firsthand and who were willing to speak out about it, despite knowing they would face retaliation, including attempted or actual accelerated removal from the U.S.
Also celebrating today's announcement of ICDC's closure as an ICE facility are the organizations that have been fighting on the ground for years to hold ICE accountable for the human rights abuses inside the facility. Some of those groups and individuals include: Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, Somos South Georgia, Innovation Law Lab, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Immigration Defense Unit of the City of Atlanta's Office of the Public Defender, Sur Legal Collaborative, and attorneys Sarah Owings and Andrew Free, among many more.
While we commend the Biden administration for acting to terminate its ICE contract with LaSalle, there is still much work to be done to provide ICDC survivors with the justice they deserve. We urge Secretary Mayorkas to support immigration relief for the survivors, to provide those who have been deported in retaliation for speaking out with an avenue to return to the United States, and to immediately close all ICE detention centers.
After learning the news about ICE terminating its contract with ICDC, survivor Keynin said, "Today brought me many painful memories but my heart beat very strongly to know that now no more people will suffer inside that detention center."" She added, "Now I can feel a little bit better, even though everything that we went through there cannot be erased."
"I am still asking for justice for the damage that they did to hurt me," Lourdes said. "Women were deported after being operated on unnecessarily. I also ask for justice for them."