The Private Georgia Immigration-Detention Facility at the Center of a Whistle-Blower’s Complaint

In mid-April, a grainy cell-phone video was uploaded to YouTube from a small town in Georgia called Ocilla. It opens with a woman in a red shirt holding a strip of white cloth over her face as a makeshift mask. “We are the detainees of Irwin County Detention Center,” she says, in Spanish. “We are raising our voices, so that you’ll hear our pleas.” Next to her is another woman, who with one hand pulls up the collar of her shirt to cover her nose and mouth, and with the other holds a sign that reads “Hay personas enfermas” (“There are sick people here”). During the next four and a half minutes, a dozen women enter and exit the frame, delivering short testimonials. The conditions in the detention center are squalid, they say, the medical care hideously subpar; they worry that, unless prison authorities do something to shield them from the coronavirus, they’ll die. “We do not have protection,” another woman, who claims to have been held in the facility for more than nine months, says. “All we want is for people to listen to their conscience. . . . We’re scared, my God. . . . We want to get out of here alive!”

The Irwin County Detention Center falls under the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but its daily operations are run by a private corporation called LaSalle Corrections. The company operates seven immigration-detention facilities in four states, and its facility in Ocilla, which typically houses some eight hundred immigrants, both men and women, has long been notorious for inadequate medical care. (A cursory review of the center that ice itself conducted, in 2017, found that “floors and patient examination tables were dirty.”) The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation worse.

The video of the female detainees had been viewed twenty-seven hundred times by the start of this week, when four advocacy groups, led by Project South, filed a formal complaint about the facility to the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the detainees and Dawn Wooten, a nurse at the facility, who’d become a whistle-blower. The groups catalogued instances of systematic medical neglect and malpractice, harsh punishments of detainees for speaking out, and the warden and the prison staff’s refusal to take measures to deal with the coronavirus. Most shocking was a string of allegations, made by several female detainees and reiterated by Wooten, that a doctor who contracted privately with the facility had been performing hysterectomies on immigrant patients without their consent. (The circumstances remain mysterious, and there are many unanswered questions about what may have happened; the doctor who is alleged to have performed these surgeries has, through his lawyer, forcefully denied any wrongdoing.) ice disputes the claims of forced hysterectomies at the facility and has promised to investigate, but, given the agency’s poor track record, both on administering detention centers and on being transparent about its practices, the outcry was swift. On Tuesday, Wooten appeared on MSNBC. “You just don’t know what to say,” she told the host Chris Hayes. So far, according to the Times, more than a hundred and seventy members of Congress have demanded a thorough and immediate inquiry.

To immigrant-rights advocates, journalists, and public-health officials who have raised concerns about detention conditions for decades, the shocking details of Wooten’s complaint are a reminder of why long-standing calls for accountability have done little to change systematic patterns of abuse. Roughly seventy per cent of all immigration jails in this country are run by private corporations. In these instances, ice contracts with an individual county to house detainees, and hires a private company to run the facility. That company, in turn, often farms out services, including medical care, to another private provider. Not only are these private facilities much harder to regulate or monitor than government-run facilities but the principle of their operation calls on them to maximize profits, usually at the expense of the people they’re detaining. LaSalle Corrections, for example, receives sixty dollars a day from the federal government for every immigrant it holds at the Irwin County facility, according to a 2016 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The money covers the cost of food, housing, and on-site medical care. Of all the immigrants who pass through the facility, seventy-five per cent are deported upon release. So the incentives to provide good medical care are virtually nonexistent.

The new Project South complaint is organized into two broad sections: the first describes the failures of the facility’s staff to respond to covid-19; the second exposes broader patterns of malpractice. When the pandemic exploded, earlier this year, an obvious concern at prisons and jails across the country was to minimize the spread of the disease. Yet, at the Irwin County center, according to the complaint, staff refused to make even minimal preparations. Authorities kept the detainees packed into tight quarters without masks, sanitizer, or basic cleaning supplies. Detainees with symptoms were ignored, despite requests for medical attention. They were denied tests and left to mingle with the general population. In August, ice acknowledged forty-one positive covid-19 cases at the center. Wooten maintains that the number was much higher. In her account, authorities limited tests in order to minimize the appearance of a problem, and to allow the government to continue deportations. When they did conduct tests, they underreported the results to ice and the State Department. Meanwhile, other detainees with preëxisting conditions, such as asthma and hypertension, which made them especially vulnerable to the disease, were not protected.

When the detainees launched hunger strikes in protest, according to the complaint, they faced reprisals. At a certain point, the warden shut off the water in a wing of the facility, forcing at least one detainee to drink from the toilet. After a woman complained about the arrival of new detainees who’d been transferred into Irwin from other centers across the country without first being tested for the coronavirus, a guard told her, “This isn’t her house. She’s not paying the bills. She doesn’t have a say.” When detainees with flu-like symptoms begged to be tested, a prison health administrator said, “All they want is attention.”

If the second half of the report is to be believed, the facility’s response to the pandemic is merely the latest in a pattern of neglect that borders on actual malice. “Hispanics are treated the worst,” Wooten said, especially those who don’t speak English. The facility has a phone line set up so that translators can assist detainees in communicating with medical personnel, but it’s rarely used. According to Wooten’s account, “If they’re trying to get understanding of their health, it’s like, ‘Take these pills and get the hell out of here.’ ” Patients requesting medical attention are simply put off. Routine but necessary tests aren’t conducted. Medications aren’t delivered. It is a common practice for nurses simply to shred request forms that patients are required to fill out for medical attention, and then fabricate medical charts without ever bothering to see the patients. Wooten said, “They’re wishy-washy with them and they play that game with them until they’re literally going to kill somebody out there. . . . If they send it in paper, the girl shreds them. . . . If they put [the requests] in the computer, she answers them, falsifies the vital signs and never sees them.” (Neither LaSalle nor ice has responded to the particular allegations in the complaint, though an ice spokesperson issued a statement saying that the agency is “firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.”) Read the entire article here:

Jonathan Blitzer