(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A federal immigration agency has been ordered to end its contract with the Irwin County Detention Center, the Ocilla, Georgia, facility where detained women were sterilized without their full and informed consent. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has instructed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to immediately terminate its contract with the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC). ICDC is a former prison owned by Irwin County and operated by the private prison company LaSalle Corrections, which contracts with ICE to manage the daily operations of detaining immigrants. DHS has also instructed ICE to terminate its contract with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office in Massachusetts.

In a memo first reported by The Washington Post, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed ICE to terminate these contracts, writing that it is a “foundational principle” that “we will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.”

ICDC made international headlines in September when a complaint from the advocacy organization Project South alleged that ICE and LaSalle Corrections referred detained women to an outside OB-GYN who performed unnecessary gynecological procedures on them without their full and informed consent—including hysterectomies and other procedures that left them sterilized. Prism exclusively reported Mahendra Amin was the doctor at the center of the allegations and that he left a decades-long trail of medical harm in the rural Georgia community surrounding ICDC. Former patients who spoke to Prism alleged he treated low-income women in rural Georgia roughly, botched their surgeries, and convinced them to undergo operations that weren’t medically necessary. Amin is currently under investigation by several federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigations. However, he continues to see patients in Georgia. 

Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director at Project South, told Prism that ICE had known about the reproductive injustices at ICDC since at least 2018, but the agency chose “not to do anything.” As The Washington Post noted, ICDC is county-owned but run by LaSalle Corrections, which makes its closure more complicated. However, advocates seem hopeful that the DHS memo will ultimately lead to the facility’s closure, something Shahshahani said she is “thrilled” about. 

“Given its extensively documented history of human rights violations, Irwin should have been shut down long ago,” Shahshahani said in an emailed statement. “We will not rest until the women who suffered medical abuse at Irwin receive a measure of redress and compensation. And until ICE and the prison corporation LaSalle are held accountable for allowing the abuses to take place.”

ICE has deported a number of the women formerly detained at ICDC who were operated on or otherwise harmed by Amin. 

Since its inception, ICDC has failed to adhere to federal standards for the care of detained people. The facility first entered into the “lucrative detention market” in 2010, when the 1,200-bed prison sat nearly half empty. It wasn’t long before detained immigrants reported violations of their due process rights, inadequate living conditions, medical neglect, and abuse of power by those in charge at the facility. 

Formerly detained people, advocates, and movement attorneys first received word of the DHS memo the night of May 19, but the facility’s potential closure seemed to be in process for weeks. In January, ICE started transferring women detained at ICDC to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, marking the first time Stewart has detained women since at least 2008. As of April, women were no longer detained at ICDC and only about 100 men remained in ICE custody at the facility. 

Nilson Barahona-Marriaga was one of the first to receive word of the DHS memo. Barahona-Marriaga was detained for 13 months across various facilities at the height of the pandemic, including ICDC and Stewart. The husband, father, and longtime Georgia resident was afraid he would die in ICDC custody, so he helped organize a hunger strike to demand protections from ICE and make the public aware of how quickly the deadly virus was spreading inside the facility. Since his release, Barahona-Marriaga has tapped into community organizing and regularly shares his story with the public. In a phone call before news of the memo was made public, Barahona-Marriaga sounded relieved that people would no longer be detained at ICDC, but he also expressed concern that those detained at ICDC were simply funneled to Stewart, the largest detention center in the nation and one that is notorious for human rights abuses, medical neglect, and in-custody deaths

While the potential closure of ICDC is being credited to the Biden administration, Barahona-Marriaga says it was made possible by impacted people who spoke out against the abuse they experienced and who took to the streets to demand ICDC’s closure. The burgeoning community activist said that when community comes together, it can “accomplish anything.” 

“What I am telling people is this: This is happening because of the people who spoke out. There is no other reason this is happening. I feel happy and I want us to celebrate this moment, but it is not the end. We have to close down Stewart and every other detention center.”

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.