All ICE detainees moved out of South Georgia jail

Detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, putting together a puzzle on Thursday, April 19, 2012. (File photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

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Detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, putting together a puzzle on Thursday, April 19, 2012. (File photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Move follows whistleblower complaint alleging deplorable conditions at Irwin County Detention Center

The federal government has moved all of its immigration detainees out of a South Georgia jail that has been the subject of a whistleblower complaint alleging deplorable conditions.

About 40 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees were transferred Friday from the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin and the Folkston ICE Processing Center near the Georgia-Florida border.

“All ICE detainees have been removed from the facility,” David Paulk, Irwin’s warden, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Saturday. “Yesterday morning, we grouped them up for removal.”

Filed by a coalition of advocacy groups with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, the 27-page complaint alleged a high number of hysterectomies had been performed on detainees held at the detention center in Irwin. The whistleblower, a licensed practical nurse who once worked at the facility, said the detainees told her they didn’t fully understand why the procedures were performed on them.

The complaint also accused the privately owned and operated detention center of refusing to test symptomatic detainees for COVID-19, failing to distribute personal protective equipment to staff and systematically underreporting coronavirus disease cases. As of Wednesday, ICE had recorded 146 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Irwin’s detainees.

In May of this year, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed ICE to prepare to stop sending its detainees there. Irwin’s federal contract to hold ICE detainees is set to expire on Sept. 17.

“DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards,” Mayorkas said then in a prepared statement. “Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action as we are doing today.”

ICE did not respond to requests for comment Saturday. But it has previously disputed “the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.” The agency added that it was working to stop the spread of COVID-19 and said that only two Irwin detainees had been referred for hysterectomies since 2018. Those patients, ICE said, were referred to “certified, credentialed medical professionals at gynecological and obstetrical health care facilities.”

Documents obtained by Project South, the National Immigration Project and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, all left-leaning advocacy groups, show ICE understated the number of invasive procedures performed on female detainees. An outside gynecologist billed ICE for at least eight hysterectomies from 2017 to 2020, the records show. Two of those procedures were canceled. The doctor also submitted bills for 75 other invasive procedures, such as dilation and curettage and laparoscopy, and for 740 office visits by detainees over five years.

On Thursday, the inspector general’s office said its audit focusing on the allegations against Irwin was ongoing.

“Our objective is to determine whether the Irwin County Detention Center provided adequate medical care and COVID-19 protection and properly responded to complaints about facility operations,” a spokesperson for the inspector general said in an email.

The county’s second largest employer, the Irwin County Detention Center is now housing fewer than 200 U.S. Marshals Service and local detainees, Paulk said Saturday. That situation is alarming local officials in the county, which leases the 1,296-bed jail from Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections and receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the jail’s operation each year based on how many ICE detainees it holds. The county’s fiscal year 2021 budget totaled about $5.3 million, said County Commission Chairman Scott Carver.

Carver has reached out to federal elected officials, pushing for the government to hold off on taking action until it releases the findings of its investigations.

“I’m appalled by the decision,” Carver said of Mayorkas’ decision Tuesday. “DHS, but more specifically Secretary Mayorkas, has taken punitive action without due process. This contract is being canceled on September 17th and not one single finding or wrongdoing has been released, not one.”

Meanwhile, advocates for immigrants are welcoming the news about the ICE detainees being moved out of Irwin. Among them is Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, which was part of the coalition of groups that filed the complaint with the inspector general. She called this past week’s development a “momentous victory” that resulted from “years of organizing and exposing the violations.”

“We will not rest,” she said, “until the survivors receive a measure of redress for the pain they suffered, and until all detention centers including Stewart are also shut down.”