Irwin County Detention Center

Protesters gather in front of the ICE Atlanta Field Offices on Sept. 15 in response to a whistleblower complaint alleging unsafe conditions in the Irwin County Detention Center in South Georgia.

ATLANTA — The federal government has ordered the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stop detaining immigrants in the Irwin County Detention Center.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas ordered ICE to “as soon as possible” to sever its contracts with the detention center in Ocilla, according the records obtained by The Washington Post.

The detention center, along with another in Massachusetts, is under a federal investigation for complaints of abuses against of immigrants — including a whistleblower complaint alleging mass forced hysterectomies performed on immigrant women that caused national outcry.

Last year, former Irwin County Detention Center nurse Dawn Wooten filed a whistleblower complaint that described the conditions at the facility as “inhumane.” The 27-page complaint outlined a failure to contain COVID-19 outbreaks while a doctor at the facility performed questionable and uninformed hysterectomies on migrant women.

The claims led to calls for a federal investigation by leaders of Congress and lawmaker intervention when ICE continued to deport women alleging abuse.

But it wasn’t the first time ICDC was flagged for poor conditions.

In 2019, a congressional committee previously requested a probe into the living conditions at three privately run Georgia immigrant detention facilities, including the one located in Irwin County. The letter from the Committee on Oversight and Reform in Congress said the committee’s staff visited the Stewart Detention Center, the Irwin County Detention Center and the Folkston ICE processing center and “uncovered significant concerns.”

Last December, 14 women filed a lawsuit claiming they received nonconsensual procedures during their time at the Irwin County Detention Center.

“We have an obligation to make lasting improvements to our civil immigration detention system,” Mayorkas said in a statement to The Washington Post. “This marks an important first step to realizing that goal. DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards. Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action as we are doing today.”

Organizations involved in supporting the migrant women praised the decision by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and hope that it sparks additional movement by the federal government to cut ties with detention centers.

"Today matters because the people suffering abuse at Irwin have been seen," said Priyanka Bhatt, staff Attorney at Project South, which helped file the original complaint. "Yet we know that so many others within the detention and carceral system are still enduring these same abuses. We hope that today will serve as a first step to continuing to shut these prisons down and work towards repairing the grave harm done.”

Leeann Culbreath, co-chair of South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, has led a local effort to support and advocate for immigrants detained in the center.

“While building relationships with immigrants detained at ICDC over the last four years, local volunteers learned the harsh realities of abuse, neglect, and inhumanity at this for-profit center," she said. "We celebrate this hard-won end to immigrant detention at ICDC, and yet we lament the continued suffering of all harmed in body, mind, and spirit at this center, including employees."

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