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Inside Irwin County: Letters from a notorious ICE detention center

Over the past month, allegations of horrific treatment at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia ­– including women being sterilized without their consent – have shocked millions of Americans. But the Irwin detention center is just the tip of the iceberg; tens of thousands of people held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers across the country are subject to medical neglect and abuse every day.

The women at the Irwin detention center who suffered these injustices are organizing themselves. They are speaking out. They are asking for support and demanding action. And in the meantime, they are doing their best to take care of each other.

While the allegations of coerced sterilizations at Irwin have been the primary focus of recent news reports, women at Irwin describe horrible and abusive conditions overall, beyond just medical care. In a seven-page, handwritten account dated Aug. 13, a woman named Ana (not her real name) described the appalling conditions:

This detention center does not pay attention to, or comply with, adequate maintenance or biosecurity and hygiene conditions for living. Our unit … has leaks in the roof, leaks in the plumbing, fungus on the shower walls, as well as water leaks in the surroundings and drips, the toilets give out bad odor (black water) and the basins have leaks, towels have to be used so water does not flow across the floor and cause accidents or develop a bad odor. Insects are present, cockroaches, ants, spiders, etc. The Detention Center makes everything mentioned above look better for one to two days just before there is going to be an inspection, afterwards everything goes back the way it was.

Letters from an Irwin County Jail

The conditions described in Ana’s account, which was signed by 26 other women, are longstanding. Eight years ago, the ACLU of Georgia published a report on conditions in the state’s immigration detention centers that faulted the Irwin County Detention Center for its “serious and systematic problems”:

Irwin’s remote location inhibits detainees [sic] ability to find representation and be able to communicate and visit with their families; living conditions are substandard; female hygiene is an area of particular concern; and detainees often go untreated or receive inadequate treatment because of understaffed medical and mental health units.

Ana’s account makes clear that ICE’s tactics discourage people at Irwin from seeking the medical care they need:

We want to make known that in Unit [redacted] there are detainees with serious medical conditions, grave illnesses, tachycardia, anemia, gastritis, etc. Knowing that these illnesses are high-risk. On April 20, 2020, a federal suit was won against ICE, so they must review cases of detainees who present these illnesses, but this order is not being respected or attended to by ICE. Some detainees refuse to seek medical attention for fear of being punished as has been done in the cases described above. We are sure they do this to sow fear and not receive Medical Requests.

Ana’s descriptions and suspicions are corroborated by an account from another woman detained at the Irwin detention center, Emilia (also not her real name). Emilia’s account (dated Aug. 12, signed by 32 detained women) is handwritten, too, but in a tighter, more slanted script that suggests it was written urgently, almost as if the text is italicized:

The staff cover up their identification so we don’t report the incidents with their names.

Those in charge of medical care do not report the medical emergencies in order to ensure that there is no evidence.

We are subject to lack of care, mistreatment, and negligence from Immigration.

The detention center says that ICE is responsible and ICE says the detention center is responsible because they pay for each one of us.

We here are nothing to them but a number and money. That’s what interests them.

In a postscript, Ana echoes Emilia’s last point about the Irwin detention center’s profit motive: “Note: We have always understood that this is a For-Profit Detention Center, and for this reason the complaints that we detainees file are not important or listened to.”

Irwin is one of more than 100 ICE detention centers operated by for-profit corporations. Nationwide, an estimated 72% of people held in ICE custody are in some kind of privatized detention facility. A handful of large corporations are fattening their bottom lines by warehousing people who rightfully belong with their families and communities, not in private jails where abuse is the norm.

An inherently unjust system

Thanks in part to a whistleblower complaint filed by a nurse who worked at the Irwin detention center, the alleged atrocities committed there have received national attention. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for an investigation. California Rep. Nanette Barragán, after touring Irwin with fellow lawmakers, tweeted, “Spoke to women detained in ICE’s prison here in Irwin County about the horrors they face. Many more wrote letters, because they were afraid to speak up or because we didn’t have enough time to talk to everyone. … Their stories break my heart.”

One of the letters pictured in Barragán’s tweet translates to:

Hello! How are you? We are not good.

I'd like to be able to give you a nice speech. But I am going to speak the truth, from my heart.

Why have you taken so long to come here? For ages we have been shouting “HELP.” You don't know all that we have suffered. Someone must stop it.

Unfortunately, the conditions and experiences at Irwin are all too common in ICE detention centers. Individuals represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative are subjected to them every day.

A detention center in Louisiana indiscriminately deployed tear gas in a COVID-19 quarantine dormitory. A Georgia detention center responded to requests for medical help with violence, including hurling two detained people out of their wheelchairs. At another Louisiana facility, guards used pepper spray on detained people three times in three days, once during an informational briefing on the coronavirus. A hunger strike at yet another Louisiana center ended with the strikers thrown into solitary confinement and threatened with tear gas.

While shocking, these abuses are the predictable outcome of a system that treats immigrants as dollar signs instead of people. Injustices like these are not the result of “bad apples”; they’re indicative of a system where abuse is intrinsic, not incidental. And the continuation of such a system is indefensible.

Detention centers should be closed 

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have a fair, just and functioning immigration system that doesn’t incarcerate people. A system that treats everyone with dignity and respect. A system that lives up to our nation’s highest ideals. That’s the goal of the SPLC and our local partners who filed the Irwin whistleblower complaint, including Project South, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human RightsGeorgia Detention Watch and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.

A key part of that goal is shutting down – not reforming, closing – Irwin and all other ICE detention centers across the country.

There is nothing radical about closing detention centers. We know that when migrants are given support and help navigating the immigration system, they show up for their court appearances. Community-based detention programs have compliance rates of 90% or higher and cost up to 80% less than holding someone in a detention center. And for most of our country’s history, until just the past few decades, we did not hold migrants in jails as we do now.

Immigrants are our neighbors, our friends, our family members, our colleagues. Like many of us and our ancestors, they have made the difficult decision to come to this country in search of a better life, more freedom and greater opportunities. In this, they are part of a long and deeply American tradition of striving for a better future. Their dedication should be validated, not discouraged, and certainly not punished.

The alternative to change is the status quo, in which most people are only forced to think about ICE detention centers a few times a year when yet another scandal over monstrous and inhumane conditions erupts. But that status quo has never been sustainable for people trapped within the system – and a growing number of Americans who may have no contact with the system at all are recognizing that they can’t abide by it, either. That’s why we and our partners are hearing the pleas of people like Ana and Emilia and echoing their call: Irwin and all other ICE detention centers should be shut down. We hope you will join us.

You can learn more about the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative here.


Credit UPI/Alamy Stock Photo