Closing an ICE jail in South Georgia would cheer activists but harm a rural community’s economy

Threat of closure follows whistleblower complaint alleging deplorable conditions



OCILLA — Start at the powder blue water tower just off Elm Street here, the one that declares “Heritage. Service. Hospitality.” Drive through the city’s sleepy downtown with its darkened and boarded up storefronts. Pass the stray chickens scratching in the grass across from the Irwin County courthouse and the stone monument to Confederate soldiers. Go about a mile down Irwin Avenue and you will find the county’s largest private employer, an aging jail ringed by tall fences topped with razor wire. It is mostly empty at a particularly tough time for Irwin.

Nearly a tenth of the county’s population has tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 19 people have died from the disease here. Meanwhile, the rural South Georgia county recently learned from the 2020 census that its population barely grew over the last decade, a troubling sign. And a trial for the killing of a beloved Irwin County High School history teacher, Tara Grinstead, is looming.

The last thing the county needs is for such a large employer to face closure. But that is precisely what is happening now that the federal government has moved all its immigration detainees out of the Irwin County Detention Center following a whistleblower complaint.

Irwin’s story is a cautionary tale for communities across the nation, including Charlton and Stewart counties in Georgia, that have linked their finances to immigration detention centers. There is a lot at stake for them. The detention center in Ocilla, for example, employs more than 200 people with a $10.5 million annual payroll. That’s a big deal for a county with only about 9,600 residents.

“At this time, we’re uncertain of the facility’s future,” Irwin Commission Chairman Scott Carver said. “Suffice it to say our local economy will take a substantial hit.”



A rocky history

The jail’s staff gave The Atlanta Journal-Constitution an exclusive tour of the complex this month, revealing empty cells, an empty cafeteria and an empty gymnasium. Staff members wore masks and gloves.

The 1,296-bed jail has held as many as 1,000 detainees, most of them from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now it is home to fewer than 300 U.S. Marshals Service and local detainees.

Built in the 1990s, it once served as a boot camp for youths. In 2007, the county issued tax-exempt bonds to more than double its size. But the jail suffered financially and was nearly auctioned off at a county tax sale in 2012 after its creditors forced it into bankruptcy proceedings.

The following year, a facility management company bought it at a bankruptcy auction and entered into a partnership with Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections, which develops and operates detention centers. LaSalle now owns the jail and leases it to the county, which collects hundreds of thousands of dollars from its operation annually.

ICE transferred its remaining 40 detainees out of the jail on Sept. 3. The move followed a whistleblower complaint and a federal lawsuit alleging a high number of hysterectomies and other invasive gynecological procedures had been performed on Irwin detainees without their informed consent. In court papers, former detainees detailed their experiences, saying they awoke from what they thought were minor surgeries to learn they were no longer able to bear children. The whistleblower complaint also accused the jail of not doing enough to protect its staff and detainees from COVID-19.

The federal government started investigating. In May, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed ICE to prepare to stop sending its detainees there.

County officials said they were blindsided by the allegations. They argue Mayorkas should not act until the investigations are complete. LaSalle added that Mayorkas’ decision would result in “effectively shutting down the facility.”

ICE did not respond to requests for comments about the status of its investigation. The inspector general’s office said its audit focusing on the allegations against Irwin is ongoing.

David Paulk, the Irwin jail’s warden, vigorously defended the detention center, saying it has been the focus of a “targeted attack” by activists. He said LaSalle is “firmly committed to the health and welfare of our detained populations.”

“LaSalle Corrections remains diligent in operating ICDC at the highest level,” he said, “providing safe, secure, and humane surroundings for our staff, those in our custody and the communities in which we operate.”

Meanwhile, the county has reached out to federal elected officials about saving its contract with ICE and has contacted other law enforcement agencies, asking if they could send detainees to Irwin’s jail.



The economic impact

Stephen Foster stood in his cavernous garage in Ocilla recently, inspecting an oil change one of his mechanics did on one of the jail’s transport vans. Located on the site of a former Dairy Queen, his South Georgia Lube Center does about $60,000 worth of tire and maintenance work on the jail’s vehicles each year.

“Easily, that is one employee we would probably lose if we lost that business,” said Foster, who owns other automotive mechanic locations in the region.

The detention center spends millions annually on other local goods and services in the area, according to the county, including food and utilities.

Like others in Irwin, Foster has firm views about the jail.

“If you look at it from a Christian standpoint — I have always kind of had this mentality — I have never accepted the theory of making a profit on someone else’s downfall,” Foster said.

But he added: “We are a civilized society. If they are criminals, they have to be punished. They have to be housed. If not here, it is definitely going to be somewhere. I don’t see anything ethically wrong with it.”



‘That place should be demolished’

Ten former Irwin detainees have filed complaints with the Georgia Composite Medical Board against the outside doctor who treated them, said Maura Finn, a lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative. Those complaints, she said, are still pending.

Among them is one filed by Doreen Alexander-Durity. Her complaint says that in May of 2020 while she was still a detainee and experiencing “irregular bleeding,” Dr. Mahendra Amin performed a vaginal ultrasound and a rough, painful internal exam. She was advised she had a cancerous ovarian cyst the size of a baseball, her complaint says. The doctor, she wrote, said she needed urgent surgery to remove the cyst. She felt pressured to consent, according to her complaint, and has not had a menstrual cycle since the surgery.

“It makes you cry a lot. For a moment I felt suicidal, I felt like giving up,” Alexander-Durity, who was deported to her native Trinidad in October, said in an interview. She added about the jail: “That place should be demolished.”

Amin’s attorney has vehemently denied the allegations in the whistleblower complaint and those that have been lodged against the doctor since then, saying he is “a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia.”

“We have reviewed Ms. Alexander-Durity’s medical records and strongly deny her allegations,” attorney Scott Grubman said. “Unfortunately, Ms. Alexander-Durity’s allegations are a continuation of other false and defamatory statements made against Dr. Amin.”



The pandemic

Nilson Barahona-Marriaga said he has seen a psychologist for anxiety and unpredictable crying spells since his release from the Irwin jail and a separate immigration detention center in South Georgia last year.

By late April of last year, the Honduran immigrant said, the detention center still was not requiring masks, gloves or social distancing, even as it continued booking in additional detainees. The message from those in charge, he said in Spanish, was: “We don’t care what happens to you.” In response, Barahona-Marriaga, who is diabetic and has hypertension, sought to raise public awareness by helping start a hunger strike.

As of Sept. 21, ICE had tallied 146 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Irwin detainees.

“I can’t explain the stress I was feeling at the time. It was a very tense situation,” said Barahona-Marriaga, an activist and auto mechanic from Lawrenceville who landed in detention after an arrest for driving under the influence.

Sebrina Taylor, a nurse practitioner who cares for detainees inside the jail, is experiencing lingering fatigue from her battle with COVID-19 in an intensive care unit in May of last year. She suspects she contracted the disease inside the jail but isn’t certain. In all, she was out of work for about three months during her hospitalization and recovery.

When the pandemic began, she said, jail employees scrambled to figure out how to respond.

“At the beginning,” she said, “no one really knew what exactly to do. I’m talking about worldwide, not just here at Irwin County.”

“We’ve always had gloves,” she added. “Did we always have the face masks? No. But I felt safe.”

The allegations targeting the jail, Taylor said, have overshadowed positive things happening there. For example, some detainees, Taylor said, have received medical care there that they never got in their native countries, including Pap smears and treatment for diabetes.

Taylor has worked at Irwin for about two years and is now wondering if she and her colleagues will lose their jobs. She is financially responsible for her elderly mother. Other employees are single parents with young children. Uncertainty and worry have spread among them, Taylor said, and some have burst into tears.

“I would not stay in an environment that would be inhumane,” she said of the allegations.



Connie Burgess, a case manager who has worked at the jail for eight and a half years, was surprised and hurt by the complaints. She got sick with COVID-19 in January and is convinced she contracted it in the jail. Burgess is still struggling with fatigue and stress from her illness and is taking high blood pressure medication.

“Now it is like I am struggling with PTSD,” she said. “They taught me how to do a breathing technique so I could slow it down.”

“We were in the middle of a pandemic,” she added. “We didn’t know how to approach this. But not one detainee passed away. Yet, we lost.”

Two of her colleagues have died from COVID-19, including a health services administrator and an officer, according to Paulk, the warden.

“Nobody can say definitively where they got it,” he said. “But they were part of our family.”

‘Not going down without a fight’

When ICE moved its detainees out of Ocilla this month, it transferred them to other privately operated immigration detention centers near Lumpkin and Folkston. Officials in those cities are closely following the events in Ocilla. Immigrant rights activists, meanwhile, vow to fight until all immigration detention centers in Georgia are shut down.

The Lumpkin area is home to the sprawling Stewart Detention Center. It serves as Stewart County’s largest private employer and generates hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue and other funds for the county each year, said Stewart County Manager Mac Moye, who previously worked as a case manager in Stewart Detention Center.

The Folkston ICE Processing Center, which sits near the Georgia-Florida border, had a $10 million annual payroll and generated $265,000 in property tax revenue and fees for Charlton County in 2018. The federal Bureau of Prisons previously held hundreds of detainees at the D. Ray James Correctional Facility next door, but that contract ended in March, wiping out hundreds of jobs and up to $300,000 in annual sewer and water revenue for Folkston, the county’s seat, said Folkston City Manager Pender Lloyd.

“Whatever they could do to get people in there,” he said, “we are certainly for them.”

Meanwhile, Ocilla Mayor Matt Seale worries about the fate of Irwin’s jail and the potential job losses. But he is also concerned about something harder to quantify: All the attention the region’s successes are not getting because of the controversy surrounding the jail.

He highlighted Ocilla’s annual Sweet Potato Festival, the county’s highly competitive high school football team and its acclaimed restaurants. He also pointed to efforts to revive downtown Ocilla, including plans to transform an old bank drive-through into an outdoor concert venue.

“There are success stories here. They are just smaller in media importance, compared to this,” said Seale, who owns and operates The Shoppes at Fourth & Cherry, a downtown bright spot. “Ocilla and Irwin County? I would argue we are a community that is holding our own. We are not going down without a fight on the detention center.”